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Nicotiana sylvestris, tobacco


Undoubtedly, the biggest killer in the plant kingdom, but is that the fault of the plant or the fault of the people who smoke its dried leaves?



Meaning of the Name

Nicotiana sylvestris, tobacco

Nicotiana sylvestris, tobacco

It was Leonhart Fuchs (1501-1566) who coined the name ‘Nicotiana’ after Jean Nicot who sent seeds of the plant to Francois II and the French court c.1559.  Nicot’s credit as the first to bring the plant to Europe is wrong as it was known in the Low Countries after being brought there by Spanish merchants in the 1540s.  Knowledge of the plant by Europeans dates from 1492 when Columbus’s sailors saw it being smoked in Cuba and Haiti.
From the Latin for ‘wood’ and, so, a woodland plant but the application is often extended to mean a plant which grows in the wild.

Common Names and Synonyms

tobacco, South American tobacco, woodland tobacco, sweet scented tobacco. N. tabacum is the species from which most tobacco is produced.

How Poisonous, How Harmful?

Best known for the smoking related diseases caused by its use to make tobacco, the plant does contain nicotine and other alkaloids which, in themselves, are toxic.

Smoking related diseases are estimated to be killing five million people a year and the number is expected to rise. It has been said that one billion people will die in the 21st century if current smoking rates do not decrease.

Most smoking related diseases are the result of tars formed when tobacco is burnt but nicotine is a strong toxin in its own right as well as being truly addictive making it hard for smokers to give up their dangerous habit. Smokers wearing nicotine patches are warned not to smoke at the same time as they could suffer nicotine poisoning.

Symptoms of nicotine poisoning are said to be loss of motor control, involuntary evacuations and convulsions prior to death.


The British Medical Journal from May 1906 contains a report of a fatal poisoning of a 2-year old boy who was given a liquid extract of tobacco rectally. His mother believed him to have worms and was on her way to the doctor when she met a midwife who assured her she knew how to cure the boy. Since then there have been other reports of similar child poisonings but, in 1977, a case involving an adult was reported.

Nicotiana sylvestris, tobacco

Nicotiana sylvestris, tobacco leaf

The Spring 2004 edition of Poisons Quarterly, the Regional Newsletter from the London Centre of the National Poisons Information Service, cites the case of an 11 month old boy who was noted to be restless following his morning bath. He vomited three times after approximately ninety minutes. In hospital, he was observed for an hour with little change and then his nappy was removed. A nicotine patch was discovered stuck to his bottom. Within fifteen minutes of its removal his condition improved and he was fully recovered after four hours. The discarded nicotine patch had missed the bin and landed on the bathroom floor where the naked child sat on it after his bath.

A researcher for Philip Morris, the tobacco company, committed suicide in 1982 by drinking liquid nicotine. There has recently been speculation about her choice of suicide method with claims that her work wouldn’t have brought her into contact with liquid nicotine so she must have gone to great lengths to obtain it from another part of the building. 

There are also numerous papers about problems arising in workers involved in the growing or processing of tobacco.

Folklore and Facts

It is estimated that 90,000 children a day smoke their first cigarette. 50% of them will go on to have their lives shortened by smoking related diseases.

Before its harm was understood, smoking was considered a useful stimulant and appetite suppressant. It was almost the only imported substance not rationed in the UK during the Second World War. Officially, this was said to be because it was felt that morale would suffer great damage if tobacco were in short supply. It seems possible that the authorities felt tobacco would be useful in reducing the demand for scarce foodstuffs.

Leonhart Fuchs (1501-1566) who coined the name ‘Nicotiana’ after Jean Nicot was scathing of the many who believed the tobacco plant to be a variety of henbane. Had his encyclopaedia of plants been published it would have contained very detailed illustrations of all parts of the plant to demonstrate that it was not related.

Some people believe that nicotine is one of the substances used for execution by lethal injection in the USA. This is not the case. It is no longer possible to definitively say which chemicals are used as manufacturers are increasingly refusing to sell them to states that retain the barbaric practice. 

In fact, Animal Protection of New Mexico includes nicotine in its list of the inhumane ways to administer euthanasia to animals.

In the sixteenth century, smoking was so commonplace in Spain that priests would smoke during Mass and whilst celebrating Communion. Pope Urban VIII banned it and excommunicated those involved but, in 1725, Pope Benedict XIII revoked the ban as dignitaries of the church would ‘pop out’ for a smoke during services.

Napoleon was a regular snuff taker and, in meetings, would signal one of his counsellors to hand over his snuffbox which was, frequently, pocketed by the emperor. Generally, they were returned later, though whether by Napoleon or by Josephine is unknown. Sometimes, a different snuffbox was returned and courtiers took to having simple wooden or cardboard snuffboxes knowing they would be taken and, possibly, replaced by a jewel encrusted, gold box.

Black Leaf 40 was a ‘natural’ insecticide made of 40% nicotine sulphate in water but it’s manufacture was discontinued in 1992 and very little nicotine based insecticide is now available commercially in the USA.

Nicotine is a popular poison in fiction. In an episode of Channel Five’s ‘CSI’ the victim was murdered with liquid nicotine which was added to her cherry brandy. Liquid nicotine metabolises quickly and is supposed to be almost undetectable if the victim is a smoker. In this instance, however, the convulsions produced resulted in the victim throwing herself through a window and bleeding to death so that a measurable amount of nicotine was still present in her body. It would seem that the writers took their inspiration from Truman Capote’s novella, Hand Carved Coffins, which also features a murder with liquid nicotine.

This may also have inspired the writers of Midsomer Murders, episode 7, where an au pair was run over by a car and then injected with liquid nicotine.

Considered control measures have had a significant impact on smoking prevalence, at least in the developed world. Sentiment is following regulation so that, for example, the notion of smoking in a theatre seems bizarre.

As one of the most widely used substances of abuse, tobacco is included in the Phantastica section of The Poison Garden website.