<Economic Plants Index>     <Main Botany Menu>          <Home>



                                                                           Smoking & Chewing Products



Please CLICK on Underlined Categories to view:

[ to search for Subject Matter, depress Ctrl/F ]:


Tobacco    Tobacco Types    Tobacco Cultivation     Tobacco Curing    Tobacco Grades    Tobacco Uses    Tobacco Production    Misc. Tobacco Products    Betel    Cola    True Narcotics    Coca    Opium    Cannabis     Peyote    Fly Agaric    Ololiuqui    Caapi 

  Solanaceous Narcotics    Kavakava





        Human beings have always chewed or smoked various substances for pleasure, for some physiological effect, in connection with religious ceremonies or in an effort to seek a flight from reality (Hill 1952).  Although a few of these such as chewing gum are harmless, the majority of the materials that are smoked or chewed have a distinct stimulating or even narcotic effect.  This is due to the presence of various alkaloids.  Betel, Cola and tobacco are less immediately harmful to the user than opium, cannabis and coca.  The latter are true narcotics that contain alkaloids, which are detrimental even in small amounts.  If used in greater quantities they may lead the addict to a low state of depravity and degradation by causing stupor, coma, convulsions and even death.




          Tobacco, Nicotiana tabacum, has become an important commodity worldwide even as evidence mounts of the serious side effects on health through its carcinogenic properties.  Tobacco is native to the Neotropical region, but the original wild ancestor has not been found.  It has been under cultivation for centuries.  The Amerindians originated the use of tobacco in connection with religious ceremonies.  The plant had spread over North America in Pre-Columbian times.  The first expedition of Columbus to America reported its use by the Amerindians.  Tobacco was introduced into Europe in 1156 but at first was grown only for ornamental and medicinal values.  Jean Nicot, for whom the genus was named, was responsible for its development in France.  From there it spread rapidly over the rest of Europe and into Africa, Asia and Australia.  Smoking tobacco only became general after 1586, but ever since its popularity increased despite opposition from religious groups and governments that almost taxed tobacco products into extinction.  Some evidence suggests that tobacco was used in Ancient Egypt (see Mummy).


          The slight narcotic and soothing properties of tobacco come from the alkaloid nicotine.  This active principle is absorbed by the mucous membranes of the nose and throat.  Essential oils and other aromatic substances that develop during the curing and fermentation process cause the aroma and flavor.


Tobacco Types


          Out of the some 50 species of tobacco known, only two have gained commercial importance.  Nicotiana tabacum accounts for most of the production.  This was the native tobacco of the West Indies and most of Central and South America.  Originally a tropical plant, it has become adapted to cultivation in the temperate region also, and has been grown wherever climate permits.  There have been over 100 horticultural varieties developed.  Tobacco is an attractive unbranched annual growing to a height of 3-6 ft. with large oval, usually sessile leaves with clasping bases.  The branching inflorescence bears pink flowers.  The fruit is a capsule with many very tiny seeds.  The leaves and stems are covered with glandular hairs that secrete a resinous fluid and are sticky to the touch.


          Nicotiana rustica is a smaller and hardier species with yellow flowers.  It is thought to have originated in Mexico and still grows wild in parts of North America.  This species was cultivated and smoked by Amerindians in Eastern North America in Pre-Columbian times.  It was the first tobacco to be grown in Virginia, but soon was replaced by N. tabacum.  However, it continued to be produced in Central Europe, Northern Asia and the East Indies.  This tobacco was used both for insecticidal and smoking purposes.


Tobacco Cultivation


          Production of tobacco is highly specialized.  The several types differ in their cultural requirements as to moisture, temperature, sunlight, soil and fertilizer.  They also differ in methods of harvesting, curing and handling.  The very tiny seeds are planted in seed beds and seedlings are transplanted when they are 4-6 in. high.  A light sandy loam rich in humus and well fertilized with potash, lime and other essential elements is desirable.  Continuous cultivation is necessary.  Tobacco that will be used as cigar wrappers is usually grown in the shade that insures a more uniform product.  Once the plants have begun to grow, the terminal bud is removed to direct strength to the leaves.  Frequently inferior leavs and suckers are also removed.  When fully ripe, as indicated by a change in the color of the leaves, either the entire plant is cut off or the leaves are harvested, one by one, as they mature in the case of cigar-wrapper production. 


Tobacco Curing


          The newly harvested plants or leaves are wilted and then are suspended in an inverted position from a framework in curing barns.  There are two main methods for curing:  air curing and flue curing.  Fire- and sun curing are less common.


          Air curing is a slow process carried out under mostly natural conditions in well-ventilated barns.  The temperature and humidity must be carefully controlled.  Artificial heat is applied only in unfavorable weather.  Flue curing is a much faster process that is done in small barns with furnaces.  Flue-cured tobacco develops a typical bright yellow color, while fire curing involves drying over fires of charcoal or hardwood.  They are virtually smoked without much increase in temperature.  During this process they develop the odor of creosote.  This is the oldest method of curing and was practiced by the Amerindians.  Sun curing is done in the open and used mainly in Turkey and the Orient.


          Curing is actually an oxidation process or dry fermentation, during which the leaves lose most of their water and green color and become tougher.  Certain changes in chemical composition take place that are necessary for the development of the desired quality.  Curing usually requires from 3-6 months.  Freshly cured leaves are then sorted, fermented or “sweated,” and aged before manufacturing.  This task is generally accomplished in warehouses after the leaves have been graded.  They are either piled up in large heaps or pressed into special containers.  This phase may take from six months to three years, during which time the aroma and odor are developed.  Undesirable traits are eliminated and the color and burning qualities are enhanced.


Tobacco Grades


          The proper grading of tobacco is a specialized task done by experienced personnel.  A single crop may yield as many as 50 different grades.  Various “classes” are recognized based on the method of curing and in the case of cigar tobacco on the use.  The regions in which they are produced usually designate the types and the grades are based on use, texture, color, quality and other traits.  Seven common classes are:  Class 1 (Flue cured); Class 2 (Flue cured); Class 3 (Air cured Light and Air cured Dark); Class 4 (Cigar Filler); Class 5 (Cigar Binder); Class 6 (Cigar Wrapper); Class 7 (Misc.).


Tobacco Uses


          Tobacco may be used in several ways.  The Amerindians used all snuff, chewing tobacco and smoking tobacco.  Cigars and cigarettes were later developments.  Throughout all the steps of manufacturing, especially in the case of cigarettes, it is necessary to maintain optimum moisture content.  Adding various hygroscopic agents such as glycerin does this.  These are called “humectants.” 


          There is a great variety of flavoring and conditioning materials added to make chewing and smoking tobacco.  These affect the taste and smoking qualities.  They are utilized as a “sauce” in which the leaves are immersed or as a “spray.”  Among them are licorice paste, sugar, honey, molasses, rum and tonka beans.  Deer’s tongue, and old favored flavoring, consists of the powdered leaves of Trilisa odoratissima, the wild vanilla of the southeastern United States.  With tonka beans the flavor is due to the presence of coumarin.


          Blending which involves the use of different grades of leaf is also an important feature in manufacturing.  Perique and Latakia are common ingredients imported from Syria.


          Snuff is made by grinding up dark air and fire cured leaves to a powder.  The poorer grades and waste are often utilized. 


          Chewing tobacco is made from Burley, a dark air cured and flue-cured tobacco.  It requires leaves that are rich in flavor, tough, gummy and highly absorptive to the various flavoring materials that are added.  It was an early development of the industry, reaching its maximum production in the early 1900’s.  Navy plug is very sweet and thick and consists of filler with a wrapper.


          Smoking tobacco is prepared from heavily sauced blends of Burley, flue cured and other tobaccos or from mildly flavored straight Burley.  Granulated tobacco, the oldest type, is blended whereas the plug cuts lacking wrappers consist of Burley.


          Cigars were manufactured before cigarettes and reached their height of consumption in 1930.  Formerly made by hand, they are now machine made except for the most expensive brands.  Three grades of tobacco are utilized:  fillers, binders and wrappers, all of which are air cured.  Tobacco for fillers must have a sweet pleasant flavor and burn evenly with a firm white ash.  For wrappers leaves free from flavor are required.  They must also be thin and elastic with small veins and uniform in color.  Individual leaves are picked for this.


          Cigarettes require light colored leaves that lack gummy substances and have been either air or flue cured.  The most spectacular phase of the tobacco industry had been the development of the cigarette.  The first cigarettes were made from straight Virginia, flue cured or Burley tobacco.  Today properly aged leaves are used and the stems are removed by hand or by machine.  The moisture content is then increased to from 18-20 percent and the various grades are blended.  Although the actual formulas are trade secrets, generally cigarettes contain about 53 percent flue cured tobacco, 33 percent Burley and 10 percent oriental and 4 percent Maryland.  The leaves are then run through a cutting machine where they are shredded and dried.  During the process the “casing” consisting of licorice, sugar, glycerin and various flavorings is added.  Cigarette paper is made from flax fiber.


Tobacco Production


          Most production of tobacco has been in the United States.  This crop was first grown in 1612 and was first exported in 1618 from Jamestown.  From the very beginning tobacco was the backbone of the Virginia colony and even served as currency.  A culture grew up around its cultivation in tidewater Virginia which has never been equaled in America and which flourished for two centuries.  Following the American Revolution the industry declined, owing to competition of other countries and to soil depletion.  Gradually the industry moved westward from the Piedmont region of Virginia and North Carolina.  Tobacco has been grown in New England to some degree from the earliest days, but the crop has been important only since 1795.  Later specialization confined the industry to certain areas that were better suited to one kind of tobacco or the other.  The crop was grown commercially in 21 different states, with Kentucky and North Carolina producing about 60 percent of the total.


          Despite the large domestic production a considerable quantity of tobacco has been imported, principally oriental types for use in cigarettes.


          Other large tobacco producing countries included China, India, Russia, Indonesia, Brazil, Turkey, Italy and Japan.  Some areas, such as Cuba, produce an exceptionally high quality tobacco.


Misc. Tobacco Products


          Tobacco extracts from low grades of fire- and dark air-cured leaves has been exported for making chewing tobacco.  Nicotiana rustica has been grown as the source of nicotine that is extracted for use as an insecticide.  Rutin, ordinarily obtained from buckwheat, is also present in tobacco leaves.  Nicotine sulfate had been an important insecticide until the development of organophosphorous compounds.




          The chewing of betel nuts, or areca nuts, has been and still is widespread especially in Asia.  By 1952 over 400-million were estimated to use this product.  The widespread occurrence of the habit indicates its antiquity.  Herodotus first described it in 340 B.C. (Hill 1952).  In India, where it is called Pan over 100-thousand tons of the nuts are used annually.  There it plays an important role in the daily life of the inhabitants.


          Betel nuts are the seeds of the betel nut palm, Areca catechu.  It is native to Malaya but is extensively cultivated wherever the nuts are used.  Chewing the betel nut can be quite a complex process.  A simple and most usual method involves the use of only three ingredients:  betel nuts, betel leaves and lime.  Slices are cured if the nuts are not wholly ripe or ripe nuts are placed in the mouth.  Then fresh leaves of the betel pepper, Piper betle, are coated with lime and chewed with the nuts.  This practices always follows dinner or is done as a breath freshener.  It has not been shown to be harmful but may even aid in digestion.  Often mixtures of the nuts with cloves, cinnamon, cardamom, nutmeg or other spices are utilized.  Another way of chewing betel involves the addition of tobacco.




          Seeds of the cola tree, Cola nitida, are known as cola or kola nuts.  They are extensively used in many parts of tropical Africa for chewing.  The tree is tall with a straight trunk that can reach a height of over 50 ft.  It grows wild in the forests of tropical West Africa.  It is also cultivated in this region and the adjacent Sudan, and has been introduced into Brazil, India, Jamaica and parts of tropical Asia.  The fruit consists of star-shaped follicles that contain eight hard, Plano convex, fleshy seeds with a reddish color and the odor of roses.  These are marketed fresh and are usually chewed directly, although powdered nuts may be used.


          Cola has played an important role in the social, religious and commercial life of the Africa natives.  It was first reported in the 12th Century.  The nuts are in great demand and the natives will go to considerable trouble to obtain them.  Although they have a bitter initial taste they leave a sweet taste in the mouth after chewing.  Using this product results in a slight stimulation and temporary increase in physical capacity.  It is reported to lower hunger and fatigue.  Cola is a very complex caffeine-containing product.  It not only contains two percent caffeine, but an essential oil and a glucoside, kolanin, as well. The stimulating effect of cola is in part due to the caffeine and in part to the kolanin that acts as a heart stimulant.  Old cola nuts tend to lose their kolanin.  Chewing cola nuts has no effect on consciousness and produces no known deleterious results.


True Narcotics


          Narcotic plants contain alkaloids that are valuable in medicine when used in exceedingly small amounts.  They are used to relieve pain, produce sleep and quiet anxiety.  However, serious physiological effects can easily result if they are not used with the utmost discretion.


          Narcotic drugs vary markedly in their effects on the human body.  Cocaine and opium act as sedatives on mental activity and bring about a state of physical and mental comfort.  A lowering, and even suspension, of emotion and perception, accompanies this.  Sometimes complete suppression of consciousness results.  Cannabis, peyote, fly agaric, caapi and the solanaceous narcotics cause cerebral excitation and cause hallucinations, visions and illusions.  Their use causes intoxication and may be accompanied or followed by unconsciousness or other symptoms of abnormal brain function.  Kavakava is a sleep-producing drug that also produces a hypnotic state.




         Coca, Erythroxylon coca, is the source of the drug cocaine.   Chewing or the whole or finely powdered leaves of the plant is an ancient custom among the Amerindians of the Andes and the western half of the Amazon Basin.  The plant was highly esteemed by the Incas who used it as an emblem of royalty (Hill 1952).  The use of coca gradually spread among the common people in South America and Pizarro found it in widespread use in 1553.  Some evidence suggests that cocaine was used in Ancient Egypt (see Mummy).


          The use of coca aids one to resist physical and mental fatigue and to work for long periods without food or drink.  The average consumption is 25-50 grams daily.  The chewing of coca is followed after a short period of rest by greatly stimulated activity.  The narcotic acts directly on the central nervous system, causing immediate psychic exaltation to such an extent that the consumer is able to forget hunger or other pain.  It is habit forming and may lead to physical deterioration, sickness and even death as it favors malnutrition.  The leaves are chewed with lime and the highly alkaline ashes of some plant, such as quinoa or cecropia leaves.  The plant is widely cultivated on the eastern slopes of the Andes from Colombia to Argentina.  It has also been cultivated in Java and India.




          Opium is an ancient narcotic that is the dried juice that exudes from injured capsules of the Opium poppy, Papaver somniferum.  Its origin is probably Asia Minor, but it has spread to the West.  The Greeks, Romans and Egyptians and probably the early Lake Dwellers of Switzerland knew the drug.  It had also reached Iran, India and China by the 8th Century.  When properly utilized, opium and the alkaloids derived from it are valuable medicinally and have proved a blessing to humans in the relief of pain.  Excessive use of the drug and the resulting opium addiction has been and continue to be the cause of unbelievable suffering.  No other drug has caused so much corruption and tragedy.  In spite of every effort to stamp out the habit it has increased worldwide.  By 1952 it was estimated that 900-million people were using opium as a drug.


          In India opium has usually been eaten and the habit was common to all classes of society.  So great has been the demand that the cultivation of the opium poppy continues as one of the most profitable industries in Pakistan and Afghanistan especially.  During earlier times of the trade, the Dutch, Portuguese and English openly exploited opium.  Later the various governments began strict regulation of its availability.  However, the recent invasion of Afghanistan by Western nations has led to a breakdown in curtailing the production of opium poppies, so that by 2003 the crop is once again spreading among farmers in rural areas.


          In China the usual method of consumption was opium smoking by placing a small pellet in the bowl of a special pipe and inhaling the fumes.  In this way more morphine is said to be absorbed and the effects on the body may be greater.


          In Europe and the United States, although opium, morphine, heroin, codeine and other derivatives are used as medicines, the smuggling and use of these narcotics are matters of utmost concern.




          The hemp plant, Cannabis sativa, is the source of a textile fiber and a drying oil also yields a narcotic drug.  The dried flowering tops of females plants, pressed together into solid masses, constitute the official “cannabis indica.”  The drug can be used in medicine to relieve pain and in the treatment of hysteria and various nervous disorders.  The active principle is resinous in nature and contains 3-4 very powerful alkaloids.  Hemp is frequently cultivated solely as a drug plant.  This is especially true in India where hemp growing has developed to the level of a science.  The use of hemp as a narcotic is old and extends back to 3,000 B.C., first in China and later in India.  The plant was used by the Assyrians and was known to Herodotus.


          Indian hemp is consumed in various ways.  The pure, undiluted sticky yellow resin, which is naturally exuded from the flowering tops of cultivated female plants, is known as charas or hashish.  Formerly the resin was obtained by rolling or treading on the leaves or by having natives run quickly through a mass of the plants.  The resin stuck to the body or clothes of the runner and was subsequently removed.  Today it is carefully pressed out of the flowering tops between layers of cloth and then scraped off.  Charas is smoked.  It is the most powerful form of the drug.  Bhang consists of the tops of wild plants, which have lower resin content in a water or milk mixture.  It is also smoked.  In America this type of hemp is known as "marijuana".  Ganja is a specially cultivated and harvested grade of hemp used for smoking and in beverages and candies.  It has high resin content.  Some evidence suggests that marijuana was used in Ancient Egypt (see Mummy).


          Cannabis in its different forms can produce serious side effects for the consumer.  It causes a stupefying and hypnotic effect, accompanied by hallucinations, agreeable and often erotic dreams, and a general state of ecstasy.  Addicts while under the influence of the drug may show emotions of happiness, be noisy or may even become fanatical and commit murder.  However, when used in moderation it seems not to be harmful.  Prolonged use of the drug produces larger breasts in males.




          The cactus, Lophophora williamsii, is the source of peyote or mescal buttons.  It is indigenous to northern Mexico and the southwestern United States.  It occurs on dry, arid plateaus in a limited area bordering on the Rio Grande.  This cactus has the appearances of a large carrot with all parts of the plant, except a button like top, below the ground.  These tops are round and flattened and are wrinkled.  They do not bear spines but little tufts of silky hairs.  Some of the buttons are very tiny while others may reach over 3 in. in diameter.


       Peyote contains several powerful alkaloids with narcotic properties.  Amerindians of the region have used peyote for hundreds of years during their religious ceremonies.  Despite serious opposition the habit is actively practiced among some Amerindian groups that still maintain a sacred cult.  The buttons are chewed in either the fresh or dried state until they are soft.  They are then rolled up in the hand into little pellets, which are swallowed.  A beverage may also be prepared by boiling the buttons.  Peyote produces a state of ease and well-being, accompanied by visions and hypnotic trances.  Users find themselves in a world full of new sensations and pleasures.  Peyote also has also been used extensively for its presumed medicinal value as it is supposed to cure bodily ills.


Fly Agaric


          Fly Agaric, Amanita muscaria, is known in Asia, America and Europe as one of the most poisonous fungi.  Despite this quantities of this mushroom are consumed in Siberia and other parts of Northeastern Asia for its intoxicating effect.  Dried agarics are chewed until soft, rolled into cylinder like pieces and swallowed.  At other times they are used in milk, water or the juice of berries as a beverage.  Using this fungus produces hallucinations and illusions accompanied by giddiness, involuntary words and actions and finally unconsciousness.  Two small fungi are enough to produce an intoxication that will last a whole day.  Prolonged use of this narcotic will completely shatter the nervous system, yet cravings for the drug among its addicts is very great.




          The native people of southwestern Mexico were using a narcotic plant in religious ceremonies and as an intoxicant in Pre-Columbian times.  Ololiuqui is a decoction made from the seeds of Rivea corymbosa, a woody vine resembling morning glory.  It is still used primarily in Oaxaca in medicine as a means of divination and as a narcotic.  Ololiuqui induces a hypnotic sleep or coma with hallucinations and a feeling of ecstasy, but with no unpleasant aftereffects.




          Amerindians living in the Amazon Basin utilize Banisteriopsis caapi, B. inebrians, B. quilensis and species of the genus Tetrapterys as the source of a narcotic beverage.  These plants are called caapi in Brazil, ayahusca in Peru & Ecuador and yaje in Columbia.  They are lianas that grow naturally in the virgin forests and are sometimes cultivated in native villages.  To prepare the beverage the lower part of the stem is cut off, cleaned, macerated and boiled or utilized as a cold decoction.  Caapi is used in religious ceremonies.  It produces visions, dreams and other mental disorientations.  It is also an excitant and induces courage.


Solanaceous Narcotics


          Certain plants in the family Solanaceae contain alkaloids that produce disorders of the brain and excitation when smoked or consumed.  These narcotics are often responsible for some of the incomprehensible acts of fanatics in the East and elsewhere.


          The genus Datura has been and still is extensively used in all the continents except Australia for its narcotic and hypnotic properties.  The Jimson weed, Datura stramonium, the source of the drug stramonium, was known as a narcotic as early as 37 A.D. (Hill 1952).  It is still a favorite source for “knockout drops” in the tropics.  The Maikoa, D. arborea, and Datura sanguinea are subtropical shrubs of South America that have been used by various groups of the westernmost Amazon Region for their narcotic properties. The Aztecs in Mexico as a medicine and in their religious ceremonies used Datura innoxia.  It is still used by some of the local inhabitants.  Other species are also used elsewhere, all of them producing comparable effects, such as sense illusions and motor disturbances as well as senseless activities and loss of memory.  At least one student at the University of California Riverside campus literally became a vegetable after having experimented with a local species of Datura growing in the area.  This cost him his research assistantship and reduced him to a supervised livelihood of sweeping floors.




          Kavakava, Piper methysticum, is a bushy shrub, 6-8 ft. tall with rounded or cordate leaves.  It is indigenous to Fiji and other Pacific islands but is now grown throughout the islands of the Pacific.  It produces different results from those previously discussed.  The thick, knotty, grayish-green roots are the source.  These are dug up and the bark is removed.  After cleaning they are cut up into small pieces.  These pieces are chewed until they are fine and fibrous and are then placed in a bowl with water and allowed to ferment.  Formerly while the roots were being chewed the saliva was ejected into bowls and this constituted the beverage.  After straining, kavakava is a grayish-brown liquid and has a refreshing taste.  It is allied with the entire social, political and religious life of the people.  It is used as a beverage that acts as a sedative, a soporific and a hypnotic, bringing about pleasant dreams and sensations.  Excessive use may produce skin diseases and weaken the eyesight.  The active principle is a resinous substance that is stimulating in small amounts.