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LAUREL CANYON—Weird stories about local plants always peak my curiosity. The science of plants forces you to ask a lot of questions, and only sometimes provides answers, and always requires you to challenge your assumptions. Then there’s the fun of chasing down the facts and myths. The other day, a friend identified a tobacco tree. If this was a tobacco tree, why don’t people grow it to smoke? I’ve travelled through the South and seen tobacco fields. Our tobacco tree doesn’t look anything like what I had seen. Our tree grows as a stalk with green paddle-shaped leaves and two inch showy yellow trumpet flowers. The leaves look like they might be leathery if they were dried, the same look as dried smoking tobacco.
Right off the bat, it became clear that this was a plant enmeshed in controversy. It’s poisonous; natives smoked it; they ingested it as a hallucinogen; the Spanish missionaries brought it to
Which is myth, which is fact? It is used as pesticide. It can calm a scorpion sting. In the same breath, people smoke it?
Tree tobacco is said to be a native of
Scientists conducted experiments with tobacco trees. They concluded that bees who feed from tobacco trees soon showed symptoms of a reduced appetite. Other scientists determined that concentrations of the tannin from tobacco trees reduces the corrosion of steel. I’m astounded by the thought that anyone would think about putting this into their lungs. Nonetheless, the tobacco tree leaves were and still proportedly smoked by California Native Americans in combination with Datura wrightii, the Thorn Apple plant, which is classified as a deliriant, to enhance the spiritual experience. I’ll put this in the myth column until I hear it from a Native American. Experts advise that this is dangerous because both plants induce respiratory depression.
There are still myths that legitimize the smoking of this plant. Mayans inhaled tobacco smoke as long back as 2,000 years. The only tobacco available to them would have been from the tobacco tree.
As scary as this side of the tobacco tree story is, there is always another side to every story. The pharmacognosy (study of medicine derived from natural sources) of the tobacco tree offers medicinal remedies. Native Americans prepared a poultice with fresh wild tobacco leaves, using it externally to alleviate pain. Dried tobaccoo tree leaves were rolled and smoked as a remedy for headaches and gout. Jean Nicot, a French ambassador to
I think its use as a pesticide is a good choice.
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