The origins of the tobacco some choose to smoke are some what unclear biologically speaking but modern tobacco is believed to have been hybridized from three parent species; Nicotiana sylvestris, Nicotiana tomentosiformis and possibly Nicotiana otophoroa. While it is difficult to verify this parentage when you think about it that is still one heck of a botanical three-some. It is clear through anthropological activities undertaken in the Americas that tobacco cultivation seems to date back as far as 5000 BC and there is strong evidence to support the assertion that Native and Meso-American civilizations were smoking tobacco leaves about two-thousand years ago. Though tobacco remained utterly unknown to Europe until 1561 the first plants were delivered to the French court by Jean Nicot. The plant's botanical Latin name is based of his last name and thus Nicotiana as a species was noted in the linnaean system. Tobacco would become so Important that it was valued equally or better then actual currency and was used as legal tender in some parts of colonial America. The rise of tobacco as a cash crop grew greatly and a number of the fathers of the American revolution both owned plantations and slaves and were set upon producing tobacco. But while some in the late 1500's claimed tobacco cured migraines, coughs, warded off the plague and cured cancer (We call that irony!) others such as King James the first, in 1604 called it lothesome and stated it was dangerous to the lungs and brain. His comments predicted the spiraling rise in nicotine addiction and lung cancer problems we face today.
The real issue with tobacco is that it is in the nightshade family which includes Belladonna, Henbane, Datura, Mandrake, Horse nettle, Brugmansia, all of which are very poisonous as is tobacco. The deadly chemical in tobacco is a Nicotine alkaloid, which is a heavily effective insecticide and as such it's an effective way to kill off a person too. Nicotine is in effect a neurotoxin, that is it goes to work on the brain triggering the release of pleasure chemicals with every puff so the brain chemistry becomes altered and cant go back. When you quit your brain chemistry goes a bit haywire and thus the withdrawal symptoms. The only respite for smokers is that a large portion of the Nicotine is lost through the burning of a cigarette or cigar, but for you chewing tobacco folks you lack that sort of fortune. If you don't believe Tobacco is deadly consider this; were you to harvest a few mature leaves, make a tea out of them and, drink a single eight ounce cup you likely would suffer stomach cramps, profuse sweating, labored breathing, muscular weakness, seizures and death in short order. In fact two species of Tobacco stand out for their heightened toxicity, Nicotiana glauca or tree tobacco gets about twenty feet tall on average and is common in the southwest. Tree Tobacco in addition to nicotine bears a particularly nasty alkaloid called anabasine which when the foliage is eaten causes paralysis and then death. The other nasty member of the family is Nicotiana rustica or wild tobacco from which Nicotine sulfate is produced. Nicotine sulfate is an especially powerful pesticide because the amount of nicotine is so much higher then smoking tobacco. You might be able to smoke this one but I don't suggest it, if you can make an insecticide out of it do you really want to put that in your body?
Smoking tobacco is a particularly vigorous plant and it's central stems are often recycled post-harvest as stakes for training other plants.
Here is another thought for all of you still reading; between 1980 and 1999 a major court battle occurred over an attempt by Brown & Williamson (a subsidy of British American tobacco* which would later merge with R.J. Reynolds to form Reynolds American inc.) to increase the nicotine content in their tobacco. The attempt involved cross-breeding Smoking Tobacco (N. tobacum) with Wild Tobacco (N. rustica). The resulting Hybrid was called 'Y1' and was supposed to have had noticeably higher nicotine content and thus more addictive qualities. Imagine if the Tobacco companies had succeeded in producing and marketing 'Y1'. If you thought quitting was hard before, imagine being hooked on some super-tobacco! If you still do not believe that tobacco is deadly, look up a condition called "Green Tobacco Sickness" which is a common hazard of tobacco field workers who have to walk between rows of wet tobacco plants in summer.
As a final word on the subject consider this, tobacco is not an inherently bad group plants in fact biologically they are important as a food source for several species of butterfly and moth and provide nectar to several pollinators and hummingbird species. What makes them problematic is how we have chosen to utilize the chemicals that occur naturally to this particular species. Now, for those of you still here, here is how you grow tobacco. Tobacco prefers a nutrient rich soil with good drainage and if you need to fertilize it is recommended that the fertilizer blend of 8-0-24 or some such similar mixture. A good layer of mulch will aid in plant development by preventing weed competition and pine straw seems to work the best if only on a basis of economics and efficiency. Tobacco for the most part is one of those plants that will tend to itself with the exception of needing to be watered regularly. It is one particularly efficient plant for the purposes of vertical horticulture.
-Wicked Plants by Amy Stewart. (Solanum species)
-Richter's Herbs (info on N. Rustica)
-Field Guide to North American Edible Wild Plants by Elias and Dykeman (Solanum species)
-USDA (Smoking tobacco origins.)
-Carrrots Love Tomatoes by Louise Riotte
*British American tobacco produces the following tobacco products: Barclay, Belair, Carlton (not in the USA), GPC, Kool, Laredo, Lucky Strike, Misty, North State, Pall Mall, Private Stock, Raleigh, Tareyton (not in USA), Viceroy, Wings.