Native American Growing Methods

The North American Native Americans used at least nine species of Nicotiana, most of which were cultivated rather than gathered wild.

As you’ll see in Section Two, there is a wealth of information on the Native American methods of tobacco culture in the eastern United States. Here we’ll just look at a few of the more relevant points for the home gardener. Almost all tribes used some kind of digging stick at various points in the planting process, whether to poke holes for transplanting, to root out destructive insects, or to aerate the soil.

Early writers generally say that Tobacco was not grown with other crops by Native Americans, as it was believed to be injurious to them, and was usually cultivated by men. The Cayuga in New York State had permanent tobacco beds in which the plant was grown year after year. These beds were cultivated and lightly manured from time to time before planting after which the plants were left to propagate themselves. When the crop had matured, the golden leaves were gathered but the stems, with the maturing seed pods attached, were left standing in the patch.

The Seneca, another tribe of the Iroquois confederacy, had a very strong religious prohibition against anyone cultivating the plant. They simply scattered the seeds on the ground in a sacred place and took what the Great Spirit gave back.

The Kickapoo and Potawatomi were known for making large brush piles fifty or more feet long and ten or twelve feet wide which they fired about the middle of June. When the fires were cold the ground was hoed up, mixing in the rich ashes, and were then planted using a digging stick (left). These tobacco gardens were made in the woods, remote from the villages, and were always surrounded by dense, tall brush fences.

The Sauk also planted their tobacco in the ashes of brush fires, but did not break the ground or fertilize the crop. In some cases they simply threw a handful of seeds on the ground near the lodge in the ashes of an old cooking fire site.

The Kickapoo, Potawatomi and Sauk all gathered the leaves of the plant in late August. They spread them on hides or blankets, and when they had wilted but not yet dried, they rolled them between the palms of their hands into little rolled-up tubes, much like tea-leaves are handled after harvesting. When these little rolled-up leaves were dry, the leaves were crushed. The reason given by the Sauk for the rolling was that leaves treated in this way did not crush to fine powder like those that had been dried flat. Most of the eastern tribes grew only enough tobacco for their own needs, but the Tionontati raised large quantities of it for export and were called Tobacco People (Nation de Petun) by the French.

One of the best published account of Native American tobacco culture is that given to G. L. Wilson by Buffalobirdwoman, an elderly member of the Hidatsa tribe. The Hidatsa and Winnebago raised a different species of tobacco from the eastern Indians (N. quadrivalvis), and their methods were somewhat different. She tells us:

"The old men of the tribe who smoked each had a tobacco garden planted not very far away from our corn-fields, but never in the same plot with corn. Tobacco gardens were planted apart, because the tobacco plants have a strong odor that affects the corn; if tobacco is planted near the corn, the growing cornstalks turn yellow, and the corn is not so good.

Tobacco seed was planted at the same time sunflower seed was planted, as early in April as the soil could be worked. The grower took a hoe and made soft every foot of the tobacco garden; and with a rake he made the loosened soil level and smooth. He marked the ground with a stick into rows about eighteen inches apart, and sowed the seed very thickly in the row. He covered the newly sowed soil very lightly with earth that he raked with his hand.

When rain came and warmth, the seed sprouted. The plants came up quickly so they had to be thinned out. The owner of the garden would weed out the weak plants, leaving only the stronger standing. The earth about each plant was hilled up with a buffalo rib into a little hill like a corn hill. A very old man, I remember, used a big buffalo rib sharpened on the edges to work the soil and cultivate his tobacco. He caught the rib by both ends with the edge downward; and stooping over, he scraped the soil towards him, now and then raising the rib up and loosening the earth with the point at one end. He knelt as he worked.

Tobacco plants begin to blossom about the middle of June, and picking then began. Tobacco was gathered in two harvests. The first harvest was the blossoms, which we reckon the best part of the plant for smoking. Blossoms were picked regularly every fourth day. If we neglected to pick them until the fifth day the blossoms would begin to seed. Only the green part of the blossom was kept. When we fetched the blossoms home to the lodge, my father would spread a deer hide out on the floor in front of his sacred objects and spread the blossoms on the hide to dry. The smoke hole of the lodge being rather large, would let through quite a strong sunbeam, and the drying blossoms were kept directly in the beam.

When the blossoms had quite dried my father fetched them over near the fireplace and took a piece of buffalo fat, thrust it on the end of a stick and roasted it slowly over the coals. ( N.B. – you can buy buffalo meat in many markets like Whole Foods these days if you would like to try this method. Buffalo ribeye steaks have great fat content. I have tried this, and it’s a delightful smoke.) He touched it lightly here and there to the piled up blossoms, so as to oil them slightly, but not too much. Now and then he would gently stir the pile of blossoms with a little stick, so that the whole mass might be oiled equally. When my father wanted to smoke these dried blossoms he chopped them fine with a knife, a pipeful at a time. The blossoms were always dried in the lodge: if dried without, the sun and air took away their strength.

About harvest time, just before frost came, the rest of the plants were gathered. He dried the plants in the lodge. For this he took sticks, about fifteen inches long, and thrust them over the beam between two of the exterior supporting posts, so that the sticks pointed a little upwards. On each of these sticks he hung two or three tobacco plants by thrusting the plants, root up, upon the stick, but without tying them. When the tobacco plants were quite dry, the leaves readily fell off. It was the stems that furnished most of the smoking. They were treated like the blossoms, with buffalo fat. We did not treat tobacco with buffalo fat except as needed for use, and to be put into the tobacco pouch ready for smoking. Before putting the tobacco away into the cache pit, my father was careful to set aside seed for the next year's planting. He gathered the black seeds into a small bundle about as big as a baby's fist, wrapping them in a piece of soft skin which he tied with a string. He made two or three of these bundles and tied them to the top of his bed, or to a post nearby, where there was no danger of their being disturbed.

Told by: Buffalo Bird Woman, 1914

As the late Sioux Medicine Man, Lame Deer, used to say,

"The pipe is the Indian's blood and flesh. Its red pipe bowl is the blood, the opening the Indian's mouth, the stem the Indian's spine, the smoke his sacred breath, wafting up the smoker's prayers to Wakan Tanka, the Grandfather Spirit above. With the pipe in your hand, you can speak nothing but the truth."

True herbal tobacco can be very potent if misused. The following account is from a description of a Native American tribe who loved the pure, potent plant – probably N. trigonophylla.

" He feels good over all his meat when he takes it into his lungs. Sometimes he rolls up his eyes. And sometimes he falls over, backward he falls over backward. He puts his pipe quickly on the ground, then he falls over. Then they laugh at him, they all laugh at him. Nobody takes heed, when one faints from smoking, but if he faints because he is sick, then they throw water on him. When it is from tobacco that he faints, he does not lie there stiff long.

" Sometimes when the tobacco is strong the man himself when he smokes does not know when he faints away. Sometimes he falls to the ground and does not know it. Somebody else says "Look, he is fainting". They see his hands shake. He feels good for a long time after he smokes, if he likes to smoke he feels good for a long while. Sometimes he falls on the ground he feels faint.

" They say that some old men have to walk with a cane when they have finished smoking, they feel it so over their whole meat. I used to see them, the old men. It was the strong tobacco, that was what they liked. They fall on the ground. They awaken, and they smoke again. People always laugh at the old men smoking. When they smoke they talk in the sweathouse. All at once one man quits talking. That is the way they used to do in the old times. They used to like the tobacco so well. They used to like the tobacco strong. Whenever they faint from tobacco, they always get ashamed. They used to do that way, get stunned.

" Sometimes one fellow will have so strong tobacco that nobody can stand it without fainting, it is so strong. He feels proud of his strong tobacco. Some were fainters when they smoked, others never did faint. Some faint when the tobacco gets strong from them, and others do not.

" Vaskok was a fainter when he smoked. Everybody knew that Vaskok was a fainter. Vaskok used to faint, but he liked it. When he first starts to smoke he does not fall. It is when he finishes smoking a pipeful of tobacco that he falls; it is then as it gets strong for him that he falls.”

Deficiency Signs In Tobacco

Tobacco is an exhausting plant, demanding much from the soil, reaching perfection as a smoke or a snuff only when it has been properly fed throughout its life.  If you are following the suggestions in this report for preparing and fertilizing your soil, whether indoors or out, you are extremely unlikely to experience nutrient or mineral deficiencies in your plants.  However, there are situations and processes that can act to deprive your tobacco of an essential growth element.  If your plants are deprived of any major or trace nutrient, they will develop characteristic symptoms.  One caution: many of these deficiency signs can be caused by things other than actual deficiency, things such as abnormal soil pH, poor drainage, and over-watering.  Don't, however, take this to mean that you should underwater.  Tobacco plants are 80-90% water depending on the species, and the amount of water they receive radically effects leaf development, development of flavor and aroma, nicotine content, and other important qualities.

The deficiency signs of tobacco may be divided into several major groups of symptoms according to the parts of the plant on which they show.

Effects Show on Lower Leaves Only

Potassium Deficiency: Lower leaves mottled with dead spots at the tips and margins, which are curled under; in extreme cases the stalk is very thin and may show dead spots; in mature plants, an acute potassium deficiency may show first in the top leaves.

Magnesium Deficiency: The lower leaves will yellow without spotting, and their tips and margins will turn or curl upward; in extreme deficiencies the stalk will be very thin.

Effects Show on the Entire Plant

Nitrogen Deficiency: The plant turns light green.  Lower leaves yellow, and dry to a light brown.  If nitrogen deficiency develops in late life, growth ceases and the stalk is weak and thin.

Phosphorous Deficiency: The plant is dark green, and the lower leaves may turn yellow, then greenish-brown to black.  The stalk will remain short and slender at maturity if the deficiency is felt at that time.

Effects Show on New Bud Leaves

Calcium Deficiency: The young leaves of the terminal bud hook up, then die back at the tips and margins so that later growth of new leaves appear cut-out at the tips and along the edges, and the stalk finally dies at the growing tip.

Boron Deficiency: The young leaves of the terminal bud turn light green at their base, and the stalk at the base of the young leaves withers.  If leaf continues growing it is twisted.  The terminal bud finally dies.

Manganese Deficiency: The young leaves turn markedly yellow, and dead spots appear.  The smallest veins in the small leaves remain green, and the stalk remains thin and weak.

Sulphur Deficiency: The young leaves turn light green, but no dead spots appear.  The veins turn a lighter green than the tissue between the veins, and the stalk is short and slender.

Suckering Natural Tobacco Plants

You’ll read much more about this vital process in Section Two. For now, a brief explanation of what suckering is and why it’s so important.

As your Tobacco plant grows it will produce two kinds of leaves.  The first kind will be a large leaf that springs forth from the stalk.  The second kind, called a sucker leaf, soon springs from the point where the main leafs’ stem joins the main stalk. 

All varieties of tobacco will keep trying to develop these suckers throughout their life, and
each time the plant tries to put forth a sucker at any junction, that new growth must be cut away with a sharp blade.  If you wish, the new sucker can simply be snapped off, but a clean sharp blade is vastly preferable.

Here is a close-up view of the developing sucker bud. Looks innocent, doesn’t it? These little buds can put on 4-6” in a day and in doing so they will suck vital nutrients out of the plants largest leaves – the ones you are hoping to harvest and turn into most excellent smoke. From the plant’s point of view this is a natural process – it is renewing itself, making more stalks from which to put forth seed heads, and the older leaves (quite properly) are merely nutrient storage vessels for these young shoots. But you must be vigilant, and merciless, or as the plant does its thing, it will undo yours in short order.

Excerpt from Section One

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