There are at least two species of Nicotiana found nearby, both of which were smoked by early Native Americans – one species is commonly called Indian tobacco and the other is commonly called coyote tobacco. Both look very similar with minor differences. The leaves of coyote tobacco have petioles (stalks), those of Indian tobacco do not. Recently Leonard and I found coyote tobacco (Nicotiana attenuata) growing at the Lookout CA waste transfer station. Interesting plants can be found just about everywhere.
Coyote tobacco, also called wild tobacco, is a native annual of the Great Basin and Western North America from British Columbia to Texas. Coyote tobacco prefers dry, sandy bottomland, rocky washes, arid open spaces and disturbed areas.
Mature coyote tobacco plants are one to six feet tall. The entire plant is covered with tiny glands and short, soft hairs. When touched the plant exudes a strong odor. The long, slender trumpet-like white flowers flare into five lobes at the top. The external whorl is sometimes tinged green or purple. Pointed sepals enclose the flower base. The fruit is an oval capsule containing approximately 24 tiny seeds.
In addition to smoking coyote tobacco, some indigenous people blew the smoke over the bodies of individuals suffering from rattlesnake bite, supposedly to ease the pain and throbbing caused by the snake bite. Chewed leaves were also bound onto rattlesnake bites. I am not certain how effective these treatments were. Crushed coyote tobacco leaves were made into poultices to soothe rheumatism, eczema, and sore throat.
The Nicotiana genus was named for Jean Nicot (1530-1600), the French ambassador to Portugal. Although it was known in Europe at that time, tobacco was primarily grown as an ornamental. Nicot brought powdered tobacco back to France to help cure the migraine headaches suffered by the queen’s son. The tobacco was so “effective” on the headaches that it soon became a popular medicine used for an array of ailments. Eventually smoking tobacco evolved into a pleasurable activity.
Larvae of the tobacco hookworm (Manduca sexta) eat coyote tobacco plants. When the hookworm injures it, coyote tobacco emits volatile compounds that attract big eye bugs (Geocoris sp.), which are predators of tobacco hookworms. Fascinating! There is extensive literature on this relationship and its mechanisms.
Next season I want to search the coyote tobacco plants for tobacco hookworms and big eye bugs.