This agricultural crop plant which belongs to the Solanaceae, the same family to which the egg plant, tomatoes and potatoes belong, develops from one of the smallest seeds known, 50 000 fill a teaspoon. It is the crop with the highest financial value and has been part of western society since it was discovered by Christophorus Columbus on 12 October 1492. It was centre stage for many centuries in medical research and use, culture, lifestyle and in fashion.
The name is derived from the Indian pipe in which it is smoked. Columbus' men heard the Indians speak of "tobago" which is the pipe made of reeds, leaves and grass but they thought that they were referring to the plant and thus gave the plant the name tobacco. In 1518 the cigarette was seen by Juan de Grijalva in the Aztec capital of Yucatan. Jean Nicot, as French ambassador was introduced to an ornamental plant, tobacco in 1560 in the royal gardens in Lisbon. He experimented with the green leaves for the treatment of skin ailments and advised his Queen, Catherine de Medici, to grind the leaves to a powder and sniff it to relieve her migraine. This made her sneeze which relieved the migraine immediately and she declared it a "royal herb" to signify her gratitude.
Nicotiana tabacum is one of more than 60 species in the genus Nicotiana. By selecting locally adapted plants many variations have been stabilised as cultivars and different tobacco types have developed namely Virginia, flue-cured, air-cured, fire-cured, burley, oriental also called Turkish tobaccos are world wide variations of the same species. Disease resistances have been transferred by various breeding techniques from the related species of this genus, many of which have only a very small leaf on a small shrub. The types of tobacco vary in their morphology, quality, taste, aroma and final use in the blending of mixtures for use as base material for cigars, cigarettes, chewing tobacco or snuff. In South Africa tobacco was used by the seafarers as barter commodity and the first local planting is referred to by Jan van Riebeeck in 1657.Initially seed was imported but through the centuries local selections were made by farmers and the tobacco industry developed.
The first Co-operative marketing agreement between farmers of any crop was for selling tobacco. This Co-operative was started in Rustenburg South Africa. This led to the formation of many similar groupings and finally to the formation of the Tobacco Board of South Africa. The sale of tobacco was within a controlled system of negotiation and not on a bid system like elsewhere eg the famous Zimbabwean Floors.
As the seed is very small, tobacco is not sown in the field but seedlings are produced in a nursery and after 70-90 days they can be transplanted to the field into well prepared soil in summer. After transplanting the plant takes some 2 weeks to establish and then starts growing very rapidly and flowering commences at about 65 days after transplanting. The flower head and the top 4 leaves should now be removed to force the nutrients to be utilised in producing large leaves. During this rapid growth stage the plant has a high water requirement. The leaves can attain a length of up to 130 cm and a width of 70 cm for air-cured tobacco with 18 to 22 leaves per plant. In flue-cured and burley types the leaves are only marginally smaller. The leaves of the very aromatic Oriental tobacco shall however, never be longer than 25 cm as the taste properties for which this type is produced will be diluted and useless. Oriental tobacco is usually produced in areas with a Mediterranean climate, wet winters and a dry summer, the growing season of the tobacco. This would ensure reduced growth in leaf area with a high aromatic content.
When the tobacco ripens the leaves turn yellow and are picked by hand or by very sophisticated machinery operated by humans. The leaves of flue-cured tobacco are loaded into some clamping jig and are dried by manipulating heat and moisture content in the flue-curing barn for a period of up to 8 days. During this time the leaf changes in colour and chemical constitution under regulated conditions so as to conform to the required standards for marketing and utilisation. The Burley, air-cured and Oriental tobacco types are dried using the ambient climate. This then causes a slower desiccation and a different chemical constitution which is required by the tobacco trade for blending the tobacco for different applications.
The flue-cured tobacco farmer handles approximately 16 000 kg/ha of ripe leaves. The Air-cured tobacco farmer however, handles a larger weight as the entire plant is harvested and the stalk and leaves are hung in the barns to dry "cure". After curing and re-acclimatisation the farmer delivers between 2 800 and 3 500 kg/ha marketable tobacco to the Co-op. These leaves have to be sorted according to grade dependant on length, colour and texture. The 2001 leaf tobacco price differs depending on class, quality, type and texture and varies from R18,50 for the best flue-cured to R 0,50 for the lowest quality air-cured tobacco.
Tobacco is chemically the most intricate crop as more than 5 000 compounds have already been identified in the fresh leaf or the tobacco smoke. It has also been genetically modified to produce anti-sera against diseases and its high protein and amino-acid content make it an ideal plant to develop as a source of limited and specialised nutrients. With modern scientific developments this "hazardous" crop could once-again become a "royal herb" in the 21st century.