Nicotiana tabacum: Tobacco

Family: Solanaceae
Common name: Tobacco, Tabaco

Tobacco plants grow to a height of about 1 meter with broad green leaves, and beautiful pinkish white flowers, belying the harm it can cause to humans. This beautiful plant from the Solanaceae family is the cause for 4-5 million deaths per year worldwide

Tobacco is cultivated all over the world as a cash crop, growing in demand in spite of measures taken by governments to curb tobacco consumption. Like most plants in the night-shade family, the leaves of this plant contain nicotine, the ingredient that makes it addictive in the form of cigarettes, cigars, bidis, hookah, snuff, gutkas and so on.

The seeds are sowed in special hotbeds, from where they are transplanted into large fields with sufficient space between the plants. Harvesting is done by hand or by advanced machinery, sometimes cutting off the full plant, and sometimes plucking only the lower, mature leaves.

These are annual plants that are usually topped to remove the flowers. Systematic harvesting of the lower leaves or volado first, followed by the middle seco leaves and the topmost ligero leaves ensure that all the leaves have the same chemical composition and texture.

Harvested leaves are cured by drying them in the sun; air-curing by hanging them in large, well-ventilated rooms; fire-curing by hanging them in rooms with a low fire beneath them; or through flue-curing by placing them in smoked rooms where smoke is brought in through large ducts called flues.

Depending on the method, it takes between 1 week to 10 weeks for the leaves to be ready, during which time they are closely watched for color and texture changes.

The nicotine content makes the leaves reasonably pest-resistant, though these plants need good sunlight, water and fertilization to produce a healthy crop.

More than 70 hybrids and variants of tobacco plant exist, with variations in sugar and nicotine content. Tobacco consumption and smoking was considered a healthy habit till the middle of 20th century, when scientific studies led to major revelations about the health hazards of tobacco.

Tobacco plants have some medicinal properties in the treatment of wounds, sore throat, headaches, worms, boils, earaches. The leaves are also good insect repellents. But the health hazards hugely outweigh the benefits, by being the major cause for oral and lung cancer, as well as cardiac ailments.

Propagation is through seeds.