Saturday, April 14, 2007

How to Get a Nicotiana Fix and Stop Smoking

Weeding out tobacco addicts is all the rage these days.Smokers are having their habits restricted in cities all overthe world. Even the French are regulating this most iconic symbol of the Paris café. I smell regime change in the air. But, pitchforks aside, as these crusades go, we tend to lose sight of the significance of the plant behind the story. Tobacco, the first major export from the New World, formed the backbone of colonial American agriculture. From this rugged Native American plant has come many beautiful and fragrant bedding flowers, a highly effective insecticide, a major tax source, and a world-wide addiction industry.

Nicotine is named after Jean Nicot, the consul of the King ofFrance, who introduced tobacco to Paris in 1560 to promote its medicinal use. It was the alkaloid, nicotine, a highly addictive chemical attracted to the brain’s pleasure centers that made this plant the new ‘New’ in agriculture and European society. Nicotine is an alkaloid found in the deadly nightshade family of plants. It is an aptly named group, but, one that includes such family favorites as potatoes, tomatoes, eggplants, green peppers, and petunias. These alkaloids are also found in the leaves of the coca plant, a South American native, which forms the backbone of the cocaine industry. Both nicotine and cocaine have their medicinal benefits, but, you’ll have to go to the library to read up on that one. It would seem that humans are continually searching for ways to abuse their systems with vegetable matter. Of course, it would be equally harmful if we were to be fixated on potato chips and popcorn.

Tobacco is a beautiful plant that not only packs a wallop to your central nervous system; it is one of the few poisons insects have not evolved a resistance to. Nicotine is a very effective defense for the tobacco plant. I’ve seen clusters of dead gnats stuck to the sticky and fuzzed surfaces of the enormous leaves of my five foot tall specimens of Nicotiana sylvestris, a lovely white flowered evening-scented ornamental annual. Remember the word ‘neurotoxin’ next time you want to fall off the wagon and light up. Pretend you’re an aphid. Rumor has it a florist once sat on a chair that had some nicotine insecticide spilled on it and lapsed into a coma for a couple of days! Nicotine insecticides can kill you as well as those bugs on your roses. As in the transdermal nicotine patch, the insecticide also passes into the blood stream via contact with your skin, so, wear gloves while using it and a respirator. Some organic gardeners make insecticidal sprays from tomato leaves, tobacco’s cousin, which they grind up and soak in water. Ironically, you cannot use tobacco products around tomatoes or other nightshade cousins or you may spread the Tobacco Mosaic Virus. For those of you who abhor tomatoes I recommend for a good laugh.

After reading Kevin Bourzac’s Nicotine I am amazed that we haven’t outlawed the growing of Nicotiana in the home garden. The government has regulated the sales of the popular annual Papaver somniferum making it difficult to find seeds of many garden varieties. Opium poppies. Those poppy seeds in the bulk bin at the grocery store are Papaver somniferum, or renamed ‘bread seed poppies,’ and have a low level of opiates in them. And those gorgeous blood red poppies with the lush blue green foliage that we all love. Well, you get the idea. Ah, the vagaries of law enforcement when confronted by the adventurous gardener. I hope we don’t protect ourselves to the point that we’ll be stocking our garden beds with everlasting plastic flowers. Even the pink garden flamingo is thankfully extinct now!

N. langsdorfii

Fight the garden nannies and start some Nicotiana before it’s too late. You won’t regret it. They’re easy to grow and come in sizes to fit any garden. Huge, tropical, and lush, the Nicotiana varieties langsdorfii, sylvestris and alata have white and green flowers that perfume the evening garden. With heights ranging from three to five feet, two of these plants will take up a space big enough for a bathtub. Tobacco seeds like N. Tabacum, the South American native and N. rustica, the North American ‘Indian’ or ‘Wild’ varieties, or the variegatum, a variegated plant with huge leaves splashed with cream can be found at Solana Seeds and J. L. Hudson's Seeds. They’re the real thing, but, just enjoy growing and looking at them because they’re beautiful and exotic. Then go smoke some salmon, instead!

Thanks to Solana Seeds in Quebec, Canada for

sharing their lovely photos of variegated Tobacco with our blog. The photo of N. langsdorfii was graciously loaned by Chiltern's Seeds in England. Bev Wagar's lovely photo of pink Cleome and N. sylvestris is from her garden in Ontario. Be sure to drop in on her website for some cold hardy garden information. If you have any photos of Nicotiana you'd like to share please drop me a line
at and we'll try and upload them into this article.

Happy gardening,



GirlGoneGardening said...

WOW thanks, I have learned a lot today from this post :)

Dawn said...

Thank you for the very informative entry about tobacco and poppy plants. I've always loved the red-flowered nicotiana. I'm adding it to my list of plants for my butterfly/hummingbird garden.


Anonymous said...

Thanks! Loved reading this post.