10 Degrees Cooler
Facts And Myths Of Wild Tobacco Trees
By Joann Deutch
Dec 23, 2011 - 8:55:22 AM

LAUREL CANYONWeird 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 California. 

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 Mexico. Other sources credit it to South America. It’s now all over the Southwest, and here in California, it’s considered an invasive species. Invasive species is a term used to refer to plants with traits which make them able to out-compete native species, sometimes coupled with toxicity to local animals or insects which normally control the reproduction and growth rate of plants. I was told that all parts of the tobacco tree are toxic, along with a “Keep Away” warning. I knew it: I’m on the right trail. But no need to freak out like you do near poison oak.  The tobacco tree will not leave its oily passenger on your skin or clothes.

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 Portugal (which is where the term ”˜nicotine’ came from), believed that tobacco was an effective medication to treat headaches and gout.

I think its use as a pesticide is a good choice.

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