Nicotiana glauca is a familiar sight in waste places below 3000 feet. It is usually seen as a shrub or small tree with slender trunk or trunks of soft wood, growing to about 20 feet and sporting large gray-green leaves and tubular yellow flowers throughout the year.
The leaves and flowers help set it apart from other trees or shrubs and make it easy to identify. The simple alternate leaves are ovate, to more or less 7 inches long and 6 inches wide, glabrous, and entire. The long petiole is the same gray-green color and half the length of the leaf. When crushed the leaf gives off an odor that is always described as “unpleasant.” The flower’s 5 bright yellow petals are fused into a tube, 2 inches long and ¼- to 3/8 inch wide at the trumpet-like mouth. They are odorless and grow in loose panicles along the branches. Brown capsules follow the flowers, which bloom all year, and are filled with tiny seeds. Tree tobacco grows rapidly—to 8 feet or higher in one year’s time.
Lethal as it was tobacco has a long history of medicinal use and N. tabacum was included in the US Pharmacopoeia from 1820 to 1905 as a narcotic, sedative, diaphoretic, and emetic. But all tobaccos were used in the same way for medicinal purposes.
The Aztecs used it for nervous complaints and fevers accompanied by chills. Often a poultice of the leaves, which are the medicinal part, was used externally for internal problems. Such poultices have been used mainly abdominally as emetics, vermifuges, decongestants, and anti-inflammatory agents, especially in children, although the leaf infusion was also used internally. Leaf teas were also taken internally as an astringent diuretic for urinary tract infections, to induce vomiting—probably because of the poisonous effects, as both an effective purgative and also as a treatment for diarrhea, and to treat convulsions.
Externally tobacco was used to relieve local pain and inflammation because of its pronounced anodyne and anti-inflammatory effects. This made it especially useful in cases of toothache and earache. Other methods were also employed for earache. The tobacco leaves were smoked in a pipe with a wad of cotton under the burning tobacco.
Then the cotton was placed into the ear canal. Or smoke was blown into the ear. Tobacco is antiseptic as well and a poultice has even been used as antivenin in the case of rattlesnake bites—after the poison was sucked out, of course. Additionally, a decoction of the leaves was used for burns and scalds, and the powdered leaf applied over all. Applications of the wash and powder were also used on rotting wounds to promote healing. Fresh plant poultices were used for insect bites and stings, skin ulcers, and swellings.
The ashes of tobacco were used to clean and whiten teeth—it is very abrasive in this form, and to cleanse the gums and fight gum disease. Pregnant women used snuff to encourage sneezing, which would bring on labor. And snuff was used generally to clear the head, especially for rhinitis.
Before the discovery of nicotine in tobacco the plant was used widely as a pesticide. In the US it was used as a crop dust until deadly DDT made its appearance on the market. Indeed, it will kill all manner of walking or crawling things, including head lice. Small animals—humans too—are especially susceptible.
Some Native American tribes smoked tobacco in order to achieve a narcotic,
or altered, state, although smoking tobacco without the addition of other
herbs was not common practice. It was most commonly smoked with Manzanita
leaves, and/or parts of other plants. In fact, often tobacco was
left out of the smoking mixture altogether. Smoking seemed to be practiced
mostly by men, although some women indulged. And it was normally
part of a ritual, or personal or communal prayer. The Seminoles smoked
tobacco as a charm to ward off disease and blew it over snakebites. Regarded
as sacred by many Native Americans, all parts of the tobacco plant are
used in offerings to the spirits. A traditional gesture of respect
is to give tobacco to an elder whose advice one seeks.