Native Tobacco

Indian tobacco (Nicotiana quadrivalvis) germinated from seed after light tilling in a native planting project on the Klamath River.

The two species of native tobacco seeds we offer are some of the few species we don’t wildcraft because they are hard to find in the wild. Our tobacco seed is grown agriculturally and this is the time of year we are collecting tobacco seed, observing the plants and their many pollinators, and thinking about the ecological and cultural significance of these beautiful species.

In 2018, Luke and I began work on a native planting and seeding project at a private fishing retreat on the Klamath River. In preparation for planting near some of the structures compost was tilled into the sandy riverbank soil. In the spring as our native plantings began to grow so too did hundreds of native tobacco plants! We hadn’t seeded or planted the tobacco, it had germinated from seed long-stored in the native soil seed bank, just waiting for the right conditions and disturbance to germinate. Both native tobaccos that grow in the Klamath-Siskiyou region germinated: coyote tobacco (Nicotiana attenuata) and Indian tobacco (Nicotiana quadrivalvis). With the compost and irrigation for the native planting establishment, the tobaccos got huge that year. In the years since tobacco plants still germinate here and there, but nothing like that first year following light tilling.

For millennia native tobacco has grown wild and was grown agriculturally by Native American tribes along the Klamath River and throughout the Klamath-Siskiyou region. Tribal communities have long used burning techniques to aid the germination of tobacco seed. Plots of tobacco are grown for both smoking and ceremonial purposes. The location where our native planting project is located is at a major confluence on the Klamath River and was certainly an historic village site where tobacco was tended. Additionally, tobacco germination also occurs following wildfire and flooding along the Klamath River when natural soil disturbance takes place.

We had been growing native tobacco for 20+ years but our original seed sources were from outside the Klamath-Siskiyou region further south in California. After getting a good quantity of native tobacco seed at our planting project along the Klamath River we have been able to transition slowly to exclusively growing tobacco strains that originate from the Klamath River and have long been cultivated and adapted to the Klamath-Siskiyou region.

Native tobacco species in the Klamath-Siskiyou

Coyote tobacco (Nicotiana attenuata) is a highly revered plant to many Native American tribes in the Western U.S., where it has long been cultivated for ceremonial and medicinal use. Like other tobaccos, our native coyote tobacco also contains nicotine and has been smoked ceremonially for thousands of years. Coyote tobacco is an annual herb, typically growing 1-5′ depending on growing conditions and location. In the garden setting with summer irrigation, coyote tobacco can grow in excess of 5′ tall. The white, five-lobed, tubular flowers are attractive to hummingbirds, sphinx moths, and native bees, especially carpenter bees that chew holes at the base of the tube to get to the nectar. This species blooms from May to October, depending on water availability and soil conditions. The leaves are long and narrow and the foliage is hairy and somewhat glandular. Coyote tobacco grows in full sun in dry locations, well-drained slopes, along cobbly or sandy floodplains, in rocky washes, and in post-fire habitat. Wildfire can trigger seed germination. Coyote tobacco is a larval host plant for hawkmoths, which are also one of its pollinators. When hawkmoth caterpillars start to damage the plant, coyote tobacco can switch from blooming at night to blooming in the morning in order to attract hummingbirds and bees as pollinators instead of hawkmoths.

Indian tobacco (Nicotiana quadrivalvis) is also a highly revered plant to many Native American tribes in the Western U.S., where it has also long been cultivated for ceremonial and medicinal use. Individual family plots of Indian tobacco were seeded and tended with weeding and soil building techniques. Lewis and Clark documented the detailed farming practices of Indian tobacco during their expedition. Indian tobacco seeds were and still are traded far and wide throughout tribal networks. Like other tobaccos, native Indian tobacco also contains nicotine and has been smoked ceremonially for thousands of years. Indian tobacco is a bushy annual herb that grows in many habitat types, including sunny, open slopes and along well-drained, cobbly or sandy floodplains and washes. It also likes disturbed and post-fire habitat. Indian tobacco typically grows 1-4′ depending on water availability and soil conditions. The foliage is hairy and somewhat glandular. The tubular flowers are generally white, but can be tinged with green or purple. The flowers are attractive to hummingbirds, bees, sphinx moths and more.

Calflora recognizes only one variety of Nicotiana quadrivalvis in California: Nicotiana quadrivalvis var. wallacei. OregonFlora doesn’t currently recognize any varieties of this species. Nicotiana quadrivalvis in California does have variation in growth, however, and in some areas the plants grow smaller and bushier (Sierra foothills & Central California), and in other areas the plants are taller and grow more erect (north of San Francisco). Neither Calflora nor OregonFlora recognize any varieties of Nicotiana attenuata. California has a couple other native species of tobacco that don’t grow in the Klamath-Siskiyou region.

For an historic look at anthropological studies of native tobacco in the United States, this article, Aboriginal Tobaccos written in 1921 for American Anthropologist, a publication of the University of California, Berkley, by William Albert Setchell, not only dives into the understanding of the different species at that time, but also different methods for growing tobacco.

A more modern book from 2000, Tobacco Use By Native North Americans, edited by Joseph C. Winter, University of Oklahoma Press, also has great, detailed information about the different native species of tobacco in North America, as well as uses and cultivation practices.

Carpenter bee “nectar robbing” native tobacco – Nicotiana quadrivalvis.

Native Tobacco: Nectar Robbers and Outwitting Hawkmoths

Native tobacco is great for pollinators. Many species are attracted to the trumpet shaped flowers: bees, moths, hummingbirds and more. Our observations have shown that in our area carpenter bees are the primary pollinator, at least during daylight hours when we observe the flowers; however, carpenter bees are “nectar robbers” on native tobacco and may not pollinate the flowers during every visit. Nectar robbers create slits near the base of the flower to access floral nectaries, circumventing the usual plant-pollinator relationship and “cheating” by entering the flower from the outside to steal nectar and avoiding pollination or contact with the anthers.

In some areas hawkmoths are the main pollinator. Some interesting research has been done regarding the relationship between hawkmoths and coyote tobacco. One study showed that coyote tobacco moves its flowers during the day in order to maximize the ability of hawkmoths to pollinate their flowers.

“Additionally, N. attenuata flowers move vertically during the day − flowers face downward during the midday and upward during the night. N. attenuata flowers adjust their upward or downward orientations in synchrony with the active periods of their main pollinators.”

“Clearly, hawkmoths provide superior pollination services when flowers are at 45° and deliver more pollen to the stigma when flowers are oriented at 45° compared to 0° with respect to the horizontal.”

Fitness consequences of altering floral circadian oscillations for Nicotiana attenuata
Felipe Yon, Danny Kessler, Youngsung Joo, Lucas Cortés Llorca, Sang-Gyu Kim, Ian T. Baldwin
First published: 13 December 2016

Coyote tobacco can also change the time of flowering and the shape of its flowers in response to foliage damage from hawkmoth caterpillars, resulting in an advantage for hummingbirds to be their main pollinator. Tobacco plants have essentially outwitted hawkmoths.

“Normally, the tobacco plant is pollinated by hawkmoths that visits its flowers every night. But when these hawkmoths leave eggs behind that develop into leaf-chomping caterpillars, the plant’s self-defense snaps into place and switches to flowering in the day. That attracts a different pollinator, the hummingbird. Ecologist Danny Kessler noticed this change when he was trying to get a picture of the plant being pollinated for a study. He saw that the plant was not just flowering in the day but also that they had changed their flowers to make them more attractive to hummingbirds: they emitted less of a chemical that attracts moths; they had less sugar in the nectar, which is the way hummingbirds prefer it; and they were more tube-shaped, making them friendly to a hummingbird’s long, thin beak.”

How the Tobacco Plant Outwitted the Hawkmoth
Discover Magazine

Nicotiana attenuata in the garden setting at Troon Vineyard in the Applegate Valley.

Growing Instructions for Native Tobacco for Gardens

Native tobacco is easy to grow from seed. The seed doesn’t have any pretreatment requirements and can simply be started outside or in a greenhouse in the spring. Our property is at 2,200′ in the Siskiyou Mountains, and we usually start our seeds in March in a greenhouse. Once the starts are rooted and have numerous sets of leaves the plants can be out-planted in well-drained, fertile soil in the garden. Although the plants are drought tolerant, some summer irrigation will help the plants grow larger and produce better leaves and seed. If too much water is given the plants can fall over from their own weight. Pruning and pinching flowers will produce larger leaves.

Growing native tobacco from seed in burn areas

One of our favorite ways to grow native plants on our own property is by seeding into burn pile ash after doing fuels reduction or other cleanup work around our forested homestead. Once the burn pile cools down we sow seeds into the ash in fall to winter. The burn pile clears the area of competing vegetation and creates a nice mineral ash layer that many species prefer, especially fire-followers like native tobacco. The photos above show a small burn pile area that was burned in late fall 2020. Native tobacco seed was included in the native seed mix, along with native bunchgrasses and other wildflowers. Due to the drought conditions, some occasional water has been given to the area to help the plants establish and grow. Despite a little nipping from our local deer, the tobacco has grown well and has just started to flower, opening in the early evenings to the delight of carpenter bees, clearwing moths, hawkmoths, and other pollinators.

Coyote tobacco rises from the ashes of the Almeda Fire

Last September when the Almeda Fire burned through urban towns in the Rogue Valley of southern Oregon during an historic wind event that fueled wildfires throughout Oregon and northern California, Luke’s mom lost her home in the small town of Talent. Although there was a tragic loss of homes and lives during the Almeda Fire, and the traumatic event will forever be part of our family as we continue to support my mother-in-law as she rebuilds her life, we were heartened to find coyote tobacco growing at the site of her burned-out home. For years she had grown native coyote tobacco from plant starts we had given her for her small garden. The seeds survived the tremendous heat of the Almeda Fire that was so hot it turned glass and metal into unidentifiable molten masses. From the ashes of the Almeda Fire grew native tobacco that flowered in the devastated landscape of burned homes. There are lessons to be learned from the tenacity of native tobacco that flourishes after fire.

Tending the Wild by M. Kat Anderson

Tending the Wild

Excerpts from Tending the Wild: Native American Knowledge and the Management of California’s Natural Resources by M. Kat Anderson

Cultivating Tobacco Patches

“California’s native tobaccos, both Nicotiana attenuata and Nicotiana quadrivalvis were widely used by tribes in rituals, as offerings, and medicinally to heal cuts and as an emetic. Burning, pruning, and sowing of areas of native tobacco were common practices throughout California, and there is evidence that in some ares the care of tobacco patches approached a level resembling that of agriculture.

The Western Mono loosened the earth around favored tobacco plants with digging sticks when it became dry and carried water to soften it. The tips of the plants were pinched off to encourage the growth of big leaves. The Ethnobotanist Maurice Zigmond described the leaf pruning process among the Kawaiisu: “It was relatively late in the summer when the women embarked upon a series of prunings of the individual tobacco plants [Nicotiana quadrivalvis] and may also have done some weeding at the same time. There were three prunings a week apart as leaves were approaching maturity. On each occasion the small, weak leaves, the new growth at the junctures of the large leaves and stalks, and the flowering tops were broken off. After the third pruning there were left only the large healthy leaves on the stems. About five days after the last pruning, when these leaves were picked off, only the bare stems remained.” Zigmond noted further that “sometimes the ground about the plants was burned to make them grow better.”

Enhancing tobacco growth was one of the most consistently recorded reason for indigenous burning in California. For example, Driver recorded that the Western Mono, Foothill Yokuts, Panamint, Kawaiisu, Tubatulabal, and Owens Valley Paiute all pruned tobacco to increase leaf size and burned over the fields where the tobacco grew. Omer Stewart recorded burning by the Pit River (Achumawi): “When the grasslands, with their weeds and herbs, dried in the late fall they were set on fire nearly every year, because the Achumawi recognized that burned-over plots produced tobacco and wild seeds more abundantly than the areas not burned.”

Not only were tobacco plants pruned and the areas in which they grew burned, but seeds of tobacco were sown. The Sierra Miwok understood the environmental conditions required by native tobacco, so they sowed seeds on north-facing slopes. The Yurok cultivated tobacco in the following manner: “[After] selecting a proper place, pile brush over the ground and then burn it, which would leave the ground with a loose layer of wood ashes. Over this, while the ashes were yet dry and loose, they would sow the seed and protect the crop by putting around it a brush fence. From year to year they would select from the best stalks, seed for the next year, and at times to hold the seed for a number of years if necessary, for if kept properly it will grow after being kept for a long time.”

Burning off shrublands to plant tobacco seeds was common among various tribes:

Tobacco grown [by the Tolowa]; burned off clump of brush, planted seed, covered with aromatic leaves, fir boughs, etc., to impart good flavor; patch sheltered by brush windbreak, to prevent wind from blowing away strength of leaves.

Tobacco was cultivated [by the Shasta]; every spring after burning logs and brush, wild tobacco was planted. There was a tobacco garden at Butler Flat and others elsewhere.

Where logs have been burned the best ones grow. They [the Karuk never sow it [tobacco] in an open place. Upslope under the trees is where they sow it….And where they are going to sow tobacco, too, they burn it too….It is in summer when they set fire to the brush, at the time when everything is dry, that is the time that is good to set fire, in the fall before it starts in to rain.

Patches of tobacco growing on open shrublands and in forests were unique habitats ecologically. Today they are no longer present; instead, only a few scattered plants of native tobacco can be found.” (pages 173-174)

From early accounts of tobacco planting, we know that many tribes gathered leaves in ways that ensured the plant would produce seed. For instance, the Maidu would pinch off the leaves, to use for smoking in stone pipes, and leave “the stalk to mature” so that “the seeds from it” could be “replanted the next year.” (page 272)

Tending the Wild: Native American Knowledge and the Management of California’s Natural Resources by M. Kat Anderson, 2005, University of California Press

Nicotiana attenuata-Coyote tobacco

Nicotiana quadrivalvis-Indian tobacco

Klamath-Siskiyou Native Seeds