Tobacco. A word that carries with it dozens of connotations and is among the most widely recognized cultivated plants in the world. The Anglicized spelling, “tobacco,” is derived from the Spanish, “tabaco.” The word made its English debut in the 1580s, which coincidentally was a decade during which a longstanding English vs. Spanish conflict would come to a head.
The English were victorious.
But in preceding decades, it was the Spanish who had dominated maritime affairs both in Europe and in the New World. Spanish exploration and colonization of the Caribbean, South America, and Mexico had many implications where world history is concerned. It also resulted in the tobacco plant (and tobacco plant yield, more specifically) brought to the Old World via returning ships and their crews, many of which had developed an affinity for tabaco.
Interestingly, the Spanish tabaco may not have referred directly to the plant itself, but to its harvested leaves as rolled up for smoking purposes. The etymology remains unclear on that matter. In any event, the meaning would go on to become very fitting indeed.
As for the plant, nicotiana tabacum, it is an herbaceous plant which has been cultivated around the globe for the purpose of tobacco harvesting, though it originally stems from the tropical regions of the Western Hemisphere. It is leafy, reaches heights of around 8’, and does flower.
Nicotine inhabits the plant through and through, and essentially defines it from an agricultural standpoint. It is most heavily concentrated in the leaves, but is also present in the roots, the stalk, and to a lesser extent in the flowers.
Despite this high nicotine presence, the harvested leaves must be thoroughly and properly cured in order to yield the desired result. This requires a patient curing process which dries out the plant, leaving behind a rich concentration of tobacco flavor. Different types of tobacco are cured in different ways (air, fire, sun, and flue) based on several factors, but the common aim is to produce a flavor-concentrated crop that is then ready for at least one year of aging. The idea behind aging is simple: Doing so further develops a concentration of flavor.
The tobacco plant yields 3-4 ounces of tobacco per plant, which is to say one needs a great deal of tobacco plants to produce a large enough quantity for commercial purposes. For a hobbyist, however, a few plants may be adequate to acquaint you with the art of harvesting, curing, drying, and harvesting.
Varietals: Indian Tobacco and Flowering Tobacco Plant
Lobelia inflata, known more commonly as Indian tobacco, is, like tobacco, an herbaceous plant. Though rather than ascending to heights of 7’-8’, the Indian tobacco plant is relatively short in stature at just a little over 3’ at its upper most limits. It is widely present throughout the North American continent and is steeped in medicinal history. The plant is as much an object of lore as it is a legitimate and extant species of the lobelia genus (named for the Flemish botanist Matthias Lobel). Notably, many of the plant’s purported healing properties have continued to find usage in the present day. Because the plant produces alkaloids, it can be used to counteract toxins within the human body. The treatment application with which it is most commonly associated is that of mitigating respiratory maladies, which the Native Americans themselves realized many centuries past.
Indian tobacco is unusually potent in its healing properties, which places it at odds with the stereotypically harsh implications of the word “tobacco.” Its existence reveals the dynamic and truly amazing nature of the plant genus to which it belongs.
Also noteworthy is the so-called flowering tobacco plant, which is exactly what its name would imply. It belongs to the nicotiana genus and is a cousin to nicotiana tabacum. The flowering tobacco plant can reach heights of over 12’ and are recognizable by the sheer array of flowers they produce. These are trumpet-like in their shape and blossom in several colors, to include red, green, and white. Despite its tabacum relation, the flowering tobacco plant stands apart as an aesthetically unique outcropping of the larger genus of which it is a part.
The Tobacco Plant in Conclusion
Tobacco has long been closely intertwined with human history and with human biochemistry. People have found reason to smoke its nicotine-rich leaves since long before the Old World collided with the New. Since that collision, the plant has gone on to reshape agricultural regions, to influence mercantile affairs, and to make cultural contributions its earliest smokers could not by any means have correctly envisioned. The cigar is arguably tobacco’s most salient and internationally prevalent offshoot. But the tobacco plant itself exists and thrives beyond the smoking community. Both aesthetically (flowering tobacco) and medicinally (Indian tobacco), the plant has proven itself versatile in the extreme.