The tall fragrant flower stalks are removed from commercially grown tobacco plants when they appear in mid-summer. Click to download a large (800x600) version of this image.
Tobacco is a large, robust annual, some varieties of which can grow to 10 ft (3 m) in height, and develop a semi-woody stem, all in a single growing season. The leaves can get up to 16 in (40 cm) or more in length. Tobacco flowers are typically rose-pink, tubular, and around 2 in (5 cm long). They are mildly fragrant and borne in hanging clusters in late summer. Varieties of tobacco have been developed for different uses, including chewing, snorting (snuffing), and smoking in pipes, cigars and cigarettes. There are even varieties for cultivation in the home garden.
Wild tobacco (Nicotiana rustica) was the original tobacco first discovered by Spanish explorers and sent back to the Old World. It was being grown by Native Americans in eastern North America and Mexico, and soon was embraced by the colonists in Virginia who planted it enthusiastically. Common tobacco (Nicotiana tabacum) was first brought into cultivation before Columbus in northern South America. It and its numerous cultivars are now the principal source of tobacco products and are grown everywhere the climate is suitable, generally between 45° north and 30° south latitudes. Neither species is known to grow in the wild: they are cultigens, maintained solely by human cultivation.
These Burley tobacco plants in this Northern Kentucky field have recently had their showy flower stalks removed so energy is directed into the production of the valuable foliage. Burley has very thin leaves that are air-cured, being hung after harvest in distinctive dark-painted tobacco barns with sliding panels to adjust air flow. Click to download a large (800x600) version of this image.
This old barn in Gadsden County, Florida was used to cure tobacco leaves prior to processing into cigars and cigarettes. Gadsden Country was once a production center shade tobacco where the plants were grown under cloth to produce very fine-leaves used as the outer wrapping of fine cigars. Click to download a large (800x600) version of this image.
Culture Light: Tobacco is grown in full sun. Moisture: Tobacco is grown in moisture retentive, but well drained soils, rich in organic material. Hardiness: USDA Zones 5-11. Propagation: The tiny seeds are sown on the soil surface around ten weeks before the last expected spring frost. Seeds germinate in 10-20 days and the seedlings are potted up until time to set out.
Tobacco was originally used for religious purposes by shamans and medicine men in the New World. It later took on medicinal uses, but such uses are no longer significant. Today, tobacco is the most widely grown non-food crop. Both species of tobacco (Nicotiana tabacum and N. rustica) are grown commercially for insecticidal poison and also for human use in smoking, chewing, and snorting (snuffing). Tobacco use is said to impart a mild euphoria at first, but soon becomes a habit. First time users usually suffer nausea. The alkaloid, nicotine, an important ingredient in tobacco, is highly addictive and most people who use tobacco find it very difficult to quit using it. Moths are attracted to the pretty, night blooming flowers. Wet tobacco leaves are sometimes used on wasp and scorpion stings to relieve pain and swelling. Nicotine insecticides (for example, Black Leaf 40T) were once widely used to kill lice and mites in chicken houses, and to control sucking insects on plants in greenhouses and row crops. In the U.S., nicotine insecticides largely have been replaced by organophosphate insecticides, although nicotine based insecticides are still used in other parts of the world.
Tobacco plant - please don't smoke!
Among the 70 or so species of annual and perennial Nicotiana, several are grown as ornamentals in the flower garden. Many of these have night blooming, strongly fragrant flowers in subtle creams, yellows and rosy reds. Most contain minor amounts of nicotine. Other members of the Solanaceae, whose small concentrations of nicotine are confined to the leaves, include the edibles potato, tomato, eggplant and pepper.
All parts of the tobacco plant are poisonous, and prolonged contact, especially internally, is known to cause cancer, emphysema, cardiovascular disease and other life threatening ailments. Harvesters in tobacco fields and workers in the processing of tobacco have been poisoned by cutaneous absorption, known as green tobacco sickness. Even brief contact by smoking or ingestion can cause nausea, vomiting, sweating and palpitations.