Synonyms: Common tobacco
Scientific Name: Nicotiana tabacum L.
Family: Solanaceae (Nightshade Family)
Mexico, originally Central and South America.
Nicotine and secondary alkaloids, rutin, asparagine, tannins, resins, enzymes.
Broad green leaves surround the viscid, hairy stem of the annual tobacco plant which can grow to a height of up to two metres. From June to September whitish pink, tubular flowers adorn the top of this poisonous plant. Each flower is composed of five petals which are fused into a tube, only the pink or carmine coloured tips are separate and folded outwards. The flowers develop into capsules which contain numerous seeds. The tobacco plant, which originally came from the tropics, is presumably the result of hybridisation. It is highly adaptable and even thrives in Germany.
In small doses nicotine stimulates the autonomic and sympathetic nervous system. But a dose of only 1 mg nicotine per kilogram body weight (corresponding to ingestion of five cigarettes by an adult) is already enough to have the opposite effect. Fatal respiratory paralysis can be the result. The art of using tobacco as a medicinal herb thus lies in the dosage. Homeopathy therefore uses potentised tobacco formulations. These are effective in the treatment of muscle cramps, sea sickness, various painful states and epilepsy.
In China tobacco is used as a remedy for worms. The Aztecs used tobacco to relieve pain, hunger and tiredness and for the treatment of poorly healing wounds.
Jean Nicot (1530-1604), French ambassador at the Portuguese court, took tobacco leaves and seeds from Portugal to France in around 1560. He recommended this still little known medicinal plant to Katharina von Medici as a remedy for her migraine. This proved effective and, in his honour, the plant was therefore given the scientific name Nicotiana tabacum. The word tobacco is thought to come from the Indian tabaco, referring to the roll of tobacco leaves smoked by the Indians of Central America at the end of the 15th century, or tabago referring to the tube or pipe in which the plant was smoked.
Tobacco is still used for religious purposes by the indigenous people of America. Shamans smoke, sniff, chew or drink the leaves together with other plants, fall into a trance and in this state ask the gods for advice. In the days of the Mayas, Incas and Aztecs use of this plant of the gods was reserved for the priests. Mexican medicine men and priests wore a tobacco pouch on their belts as a sign of their rank. Rich medicine men employed servants whose sole job was to look after the pipe or tube used for smoking the tobacco. The tobacco pipe was a common burial object. Priests wafted the smoke of tobacco over every newborn baby and its mother as mediator between the earth and the spiritual world. It was not until later that normal people were allowed to smoke tobacco. For them this plant had a different significance. Tobacco reduces hunger and pain and increases the body's resistance.
Gonzalo Fernandez de Oviedo y Valdès (1478-1557), travel companion of Columbus and chronicler of the South American conquest, was the first to introduce tobacco to Europe. The Spaniards cultivated it as ornamental plant because of its attractive flowers, the Spanish doctor Nicolàs Monardes (1493-1578) lectured about the healing powers of tobacco at the University of Seville.
Inhaling smoke: there was no name for this new type of consumption in Europe. Up to the mid-17th century terms such as 'drinking smoke' or 'drinking tobacco' were used to describe the new trend.
But not everyone was in favour of the tobacco introduced into Europe and used for recreational and medicinal purposes. In the 16th century already the English king James I (1566-1625), son of Maria Stuart, spoke out strongly against tobacco and expelled tobacco consumers from his court. In the 17th century severe penalties, in some cases even the death penalty, were imposed for smoking in Russia and in the Ottoman empire in the hopes that curbing tobacco consumption would weaken the influence of the European colonial powers.
In a papal bull Pope Urban VIII (1623-1644) threatened to anathematise anyone who smoked, chewed or sniffed the heathen tobacco in the church. His successor Pope Innocent X (1644-1655) went even further and threatened to excommunicate the whole of Christianity if they did not desist from smoking. In vain. Tobacco spread like wildfire through the whole of Europe, India and Asia. Today 30 percent of the world's population smoke tobacco and the world production of tobacco leaf is seven million tonnes per year.
The plant from another perspective
The tobacco plant has a special feature which only becomes apparent on closer inspection. The flowers, elongated tubes with five petal tips, are not typical examples of an open, scented bloom. The petals are fused to form a narrow, elongated tube. The predominant feature of the plant is the expansive leaf. The fused, tubular flowers enable the plant to create enclosed compartments. Enclosed compartments are a characteristic of animal organs. Largely closed flowers forming enclosed compartments are particularly typical of poisonous, alkaloid-containing plants such as tobacco and deadly nightshade. These plants thus go beyond the purely botanical level. Both have spasmolytic action.