Other Names Tobacco
Nicotiana is better known as tobacco. An excellent choice for a moon garden, Nicotiana’s blooms are in their finest glory in the evening with a strange luminescence and a pleasing scent. There are many hybrids that will stay open all day, but they do not have as pleasing a scent. Nicotiana is a tropical perennial, but it is grown as an annual in northern zones.
N. alata Jasmine Tobacco or Ornamental tobacco is a lovely plant, about three feet tall, with many 1 inch, star-shaped, tube-like flowers that bloom from midsummer to autumn. Although it can reach up to four feet in mild areas, it is compact enough for small gardens. There are many different colored cultivars available ranging from lime green to red. It is very fragrant, especially at dusk.
N. sylvestris Flowering tobacco can grow up to six feet tall in tropical areas with very long, white, tube-like flowers that appear in a cluster atop a stalk. Its scent is more intense than N. alata and its foliage is impressive even before the springtime flowers open.
N. tabacum Smoking Tobacco grows quite tall with fragrant, star-shaped flowers, white to purple or red, that attract moths at night. This is the species grown commercially for the tobacco industry. It is also known as cultivated tobacco or Virginia tobacco.
N. rustica, Mapacho, Wild Tobacco Grows to about 3 feet tall with terminal clusters of yellow flowers and wide oval leaves.
History and Folklore
Native to Brazil, Uruguay, Paraguay and Argentina, N. alata was introduced to North American and European gardens in the 1800s. Jean Nicot, from whom the genus name Nicotiana was derived, first introduced flowering tobacco to the French court.
Christopher Columbus’s sailors were amazed when they discovered the Natives’ habit of smoking tobacco. The idea of ingesting smoke for pleasure was a foreign one to European culture and the Natives were mockingly referred to as chimneys.
According to legend, tobacco was first presented to Queen Elizabeth I by Sir Walter Raleigh after his famous adventures, and she bet him he could not tell how much smoke was in a pound of tobacco. He weighed the tobacco and then the ashes after smoking and declared that the difference in those weights was the answer. The Queen paid up saying that although she’d heard of many who had turned gold into smoke, he was the first she knew of who had turned smoke into gold. In 1618, Sir Walter became the first man to have a last smoke before his execution.
Other sources say that Sir John Hopkins, or a member of his crew, may have been the first to introduce tobacco to European culture in the 1560s.
Thanks to John Rolfe, husband of Pocahontas, tobacco was soon the mainstay of the Virginia colony’s economy. Rolfe is also credited with breeding stronger, sweeter tobacco than the original variety used ceremonially by the Natives.
The Arab word tabaq meaning “euphoria producing herb” may be the origin of the word “tobacco”. The location, Tobago, in the West Indies, from whence tobacco was first discovered by Europeans may also be the origin of the name. The Spanish word tobacco originally referred to a pipe.
American Natives traditionalists hold tobacco (N. tobacum and N. rustica) with special reverence. In some traditions, visitors were offered a smoke as a form of hospitality and a smoke was shared at the beginning of special rituals. Sharing a smoke marked alliances and contracts, sworn friendships and the beginning journeys and wars.
One tradition maintains that upon creating all creatures, the Great Spirit gave each a special power. Man was created last and there was no special powers left, so the Great Spirit gave man tobacco. All the other spirits wanted it and asked to trade their powers for it, but the Great Spirit refused saying it was Man’s to give away or keep as he pleased. So when Man wants help from or to honor a Spirit, he leaves offerings of tobacco leaves or burns them to call the spirits to him.
Rules associated with tobacco vary by tradition. The northernmost Native groups did not use tobacco. Some groups used it recreationally as well as for spiritual purposes. In some cases women could not smoke and in some traditions they weren’t even permitted to approach the plant. Most of the Southern American groups reserved tobacco only for spiritual purposes and, in many Amazonian groups, only Shamans could smoke.
N. rustica is the species most associated with Shamanic practice. It is very strong and not recommended for recreational use by any means! It has the highest level of nicotine of any of the Nicotiana species. Use with caution ceremonially. Do not try to smoke the ornamental varieties.
All of these plants are poisonous so plant them where children and pets will not have easy access to them!
Scatter the seeds after the first frost, but don’t cover them as light helps germination. Plant 12-18 inches apart. Tobacco likes nitrogen fertilizer. All species can be grown in pots indoors.
Hornworms enjoy eating tobacco species and may or may not be a problem. But they turn into really neat moths, so sharing is good.
N. alata likes average sun, soil and watering is all it needs and it is reasonably shade tolerant. It is an annual, in temperate areas, but it will reseed. Flowers in the summer. Water only during dry spells.
N. sylvestris needs to be protected from winds. An annual, may reseed in mild areas. Otherwise, collect the seeds in the fall. Flowers in the summer. Tolerates a bit of shade. Water only during dry spells.
N. tobacum can be grown only where temperatures do not fall below freezing. Prefers well-drained, rich soil and lots of sun. May take several weeks to germinate. If you are planning to smoke it, stop fertilizing a month before harvest so as not to taint the flavor. Biannual.
Grow N. rustica like //N. tabacum”. Requires 14 hours of daylight to flower!
Apricots and tobacco don’t like each other, so it’s best to plant them separately.
Magical and Spiritual Use
The smoke from the burning leaf is used in some smudging ceremonies. Nicotiana can be used as a substitute for other members of the nightshade family in a spell. It is also a suitable offering for the sacrificial fire.
All species of Nicotiana make can be used as an offering to animal spirits, but keep them far away from corporeal animals!
Tobacco as a Dream Symbol
To dream of tobacco means that one will have success in business and failure in love.
To see it growing indicates a pleasant surprise.
To see the dried leaf in a dream indicates a good crop or coming prosperity.
To smoke it tells of good friendships.
Steeped leaves from any species, make an excellent insect repellent, but do not apply to skin and take care to wash it off any harvested plants. Make a strong tea and spray it on your other garden plants to deter pests. N. rustica is best, N. tobacum second best.
Use with great caution! Never eat it. It is highly addictive when smoked, chewed or sniffed and poisonous if eaten. It can be smoked for weight loss, to relieve fatigue and stress. N. tobacum and N. rustica are used. They are highly addictive and regular use is linked to heart disease and cancer.
A poultice of wet leaves can be applied to stings and to relieve itching and swelling. Nicotine can be absorbed into the skin.
Tobacco was prescribed as a wonder drug by many European healers until well into the 1700s, as a poultice, in pill form, chewed and swallowed, smoked, sniffed or drunk as tea for aches and pains, swellings, snakebites, depression, to ease hunger, thirst and bad breath. By the 1800s there were plenty who viewed tobacco as a poison and blamed on its use such maladies and impotence, brain damage, sterility, blindness and ‘dull senses’.
Consumption may produce nausea, vomiting, sweating, heart palpitation, hallucinations, death
All Nicotiania species are poison!
Nicotine contained in these plants is highly addictive! Addictive constituents and poisons can be absorbed through the skin.
Nicotiana should not be used or handled by pregnant women or people with heart problems or nervous disorders.
Keeping Nicotiana in the garden in northern climates is impractical. I have planted a few varieties myself and they are beautiful, but seeds invariably remain unripe when the snow comes to kill them off and you always have to buy more the following spring. If you do live in the south and have a corner of your garden well protected from curious kids & critters, this is a highly recommended plant, especially if you’ve got a moon garden theme. Nicotiana attracts hummingbirds by day and hawk moths by night.