Several years ago, a man in Los Angeles County planted some collard seeds in his backyard. He lived not far from the hilly country of the Angeles National Forest, and when his plants came up, he picked, cooked, and ate them like collard greens that he remembered from his childhood in the South. Immediately, he became severely ill but managed to get to the hospital where they pumped his stomach.
Later, he took some of the plants to a nearby nature center, and he learned that the plants which grew in his collard patch were actually tree tobacco, which were likely dropped into his yard by birds or rodents. The new growth of tree tobacco does bear a resemblance to collard greens, so this man’s mistake was somewhat understandable.
Fortunately, he lived.
Wild Tobacco is Everywhere
During the Clinton administration, there was idle talk of trying to make tobacco illegal, like a modern-day prohibition. My botany friends and I laughed at this silly idea. Even if the government managed to eradicate the tobacco companies, we knew there would still be plenty of tobacco everywhere, as there are various tobacco plants growing wild all over the country.
The most common tobacco in the west and southwest is Nicotiana glauca, commonly called tree tobacco or Indian tobacco. It’s a member of the Nightshade family and not a native of the U.S., but was introduced first into California by the Spanish missionaries from Bolivia, Argentina, and Paraguay.
Tree tobacco grows large and tall, almost tree-like with its large bluish-green waxy leaves and yellow tubular flowers. This South America native is now found along the flood beds of streams, along trails, and the least hospitable arid wasteland areas all over the southwestern and western United States. It is also readily cultivated in gardens, especially by people who grow them, because the yellow tubular flowers attract hummingbirds. The ovoid leaves are entire (not toothed), glabrous (not hairy), bluish green, and alternately arranged. The leaves of the new young plant are extremely large, sometimes up to two feet in length, although the average length of a leaf, however, is approximately six inches. As the plant matures, the leaves become much smaller — from one inch to three inches.
Why is it Poisonous?
All parts of the tree tobacco are poisonous. It is poisonous to eat any part this plant. Poisonings occur most often with the new growth of the tree tobacco plant, well before any flowers have formed. If tree tobacco is eaten, it can cause vomiting, stomach pains, diarrhea, general weakness, irregular pulse, shaking, convulsion of muscles, and even death.
Although tree tobacco does contain about one percent nicotine, it also has about 10 percent of anabasine, the alkaloid found in its leaves, stems and flowers. This alkaloid has been linked to birth defects in cows, pigs, and sheep who graze on the plant.
According to Dr. James Adams, co-author of Healing with Medicinal Plants of the West, “Anabasine is a compound similar in structure and activity to nicotine, but more toxic in terms of seizure induction. As few as three leaves of Nicotiana glauca can be fatal.”
Tree Tobacco vs. Pokeweed
People from the Southern states, and from Mexico, may be accustomed to eating the cooked greens of pokeweed (Phytolacca americana). Pokeweed is a toxic plant with water-soluble toxins, and is never consumed raw. The young greens are boiled, the water discarded, and the greens are cooked again. The toxin in pokeweed is water-soluble, so the greens are then safe to eat.
In fact, pokeweed is a longtime traditional southern food, but everyone who eats it knows that you have to cook it first. When some of these folks move out to the western states and see young tree tobacco, they periodically confuse the two. In fact, the overall appearance of young pokeweed and young tree tobacco is very similar.
However, pokeweed’s leaves are glossy green, whereas tree tobacco’s leaves are bluish-green, and almost waxy. As each plant matures, they begin to look very different. Pokeweed, with its bright, glossy-green leaves, is uncommon in the southwestern and western United States where tree tobacco is found. The mature pokeweed’s stalk turns bright violet, unlike that of the tree tobacco, which remains bluish-green.
Smoking and Medicinal Uses
Even though you should never eat any part of the tree tobacco, there are a few good uses for the plant.
Smoking: The tree tobacco, closely related to commercial tobacco, has been used as a ceremonial smoke by Native Americans for hundreds of years. Though not the native tobacco, the tree tobacco leaves were sometimes smoked, sometimes mixed with the leaves of the bearberry, Arctostaphylos uvaursi, as well as the leaves of another manzanita, probably Arctostaphylos patula.
According to Edward K. Balls, author of Early Uses of California Plants, “Smoking was really more a ‘cult,’ particularly among the tribes of the lower Klamath area. In the Karok economy, smoking was not practiced for pleasure but always for some definite end: as a part of the day’s routine, or as a rite prescribed by the tribal customs.” During my field trips with school children, one will invariably ask, “How can you smoke this tree tobacco if eating it will kill you?” I tell them that eating the plant kills you within a few hours, whereas smoking it kills you slowly.
Medicinal Uses: Edward K. Balls adds that the tree tobacco leaves were also used medicinally. “The leaves were supposed to be good steamed and used as a poultice to relieve a swollen throat, and steamed into the body for those suffering from rheumatism,” he explains. A poultice made from the leaves of this plant was occasionally used as a painkiller on cuts and was applied to a rattlesnake bite after an attempt had been made to suck out the venom.
Other Uses: A dense tea brewed from the tree tobacco leaves can be used as an insect repellent and can be sprayed directly onto roses, vegetables, and animal pens and cages. This works great to get rid of aphids. Cook an ample concentration of fresh leaves in water in a big (covered) pot until there is a brown tea. Let cool, then strain and spray on your plants. You might wish to add a biodegradable liquid detergent to the tobacco tea so it will better adhere to the foliage.
Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared in the September 2015 print issue of American Survival Guide.