Put that in your pipe and smoke it!
Well, please don’t really. This is a scientific specimen.
This tobacco specimen was collected in Ecuador by Hendrik Balslev on February 21, 1984. Hendrik Balslev is now a professor at Aarhus University, Denmark, an expert in the taxonomy and ethnobotany of plants of the Amazon. This specimen was planted by the Secoya tribe in the “area of tropical rainforest.” The Secoya are a group of indigenous peoples, with a distinct culture and language, living in the Amazon regions of Ecuador and Peru.
Tobacco refers to more than 70 species of plants in the genus Nicotiana. In the nightshade family (Solanaceae), tobacco is related to deadly nightshade, potatoes, and tomatoes. They famously contain the addictive alkaloid stimulant chemical nicotine. Nicotine is a neurotoxin for insects, produced by plants for its insecticide properties. For that reason, tobacco has also been used as an insecticide.
Tobacco is a culturally important plant, far beyond a pack of cigarettes. The commonly cultivated species is Nicotiana tabacum. Tobacco has rich, long history of medicinal and traditional use in the Americas, especially Mesoamerica and the Caribbean, and with many native American tribes growing and using tobacco for centuries. It was used for smoking, in religious ceremonies, socially, as a sign of peace (peace pipes), as a good for trade, and more. There is evidence suggesting its cultivation in Mexico as early as 1500 BC.
When Europeans arrived in the Americas, tobacco was quickly prized and popularized in Europe. Tobacco was influential in European colonization in North America, becoming a major cash crop. Tobacco was important to the history of the United States, but with a dark side. Many of America’s founding fathers had tobacco plantations, mostly operated through slave labor. The cultivation of tobacco fueled the early slave trade in 17th and 18th century America. The number of slaves from Africa in the Chesapeake region (Virginia) and North Carolina increased greatly.
A complicated plant – botanically and culturally.
Check back for more! Botanists at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History share digital specimens from the herbarium on dates they were collected. They are in the midst of a three-year project to digitize nearly 190,000 plant specimens collected in the region, making images and other data publicly available online. This effort is part of the Mid-Atlantic Megalopolis Project (mamdigitization.org), a network of thirteen herbaria spanning the densely populated urban corridor from Washington, D.C. to New York City to achieve a greater understanding of our urban areas, including the unique industrial and environmental history of the greater Pittsburgh region. This project is made possible by the National Science Foundation under grant no. 1801022.
Mason Heberling is Assistant Curator of Botany at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History. Museum employees are encouraged to blog about their unique experiences and knowledge gained from working at the museum.