The Coyote Tobacconist
Donn Todt is seriously addicted to tobacco. But Todt doesn't smoke cigarettes or chew plug. Instead, the Ashland city horticulturist is addicted to tracking down roadside weeds of the family Nicotiana, the first cousins to the common tobacco plant used in cigarettes.
The straggly two- to four-foot high plant with white, clarinet-shaped leaves is making a surprising appearance in our area, Todt told a small gathering at North Mountain Park Tuesday night. "People drive by tobacco everyday, but they have no idea what it is. Taking a look at this you would just see a weed, and you wouldn't want to waste much time on it, but this is one of the most interesting plants around."
Todt's addiction to tobacco began some 26 years ago when he was part of a canoe trip down
the Upper Klamath River. "We pulled up on a sandbar and here was this plant. I said, What is this? Sure enough, it was tobacco. I took some seeds back to Ashland and was able to grow it in a garden at SOU. I've been hunting this plant down ever since."
Native American use
Native Americans across the continent used indigenous tobacco plants for various purposes, said Todt. "The Paiute ate small amounts to expel worms. And people everywhere used it as a stimulant. The Karuk got pretty looped on it."
"But the Indians treated tobacco as a gift from the gods," he continued. "They were very reverential towards it, and consumed small quantities at a time. They would also use it to bless an area or a new village site."
The tobacco Native Americans used in the Rogue Valley was the species Nicotiana quadrivalvis, commonly called Indian or People's Tobacco. The plant is native to southern California, but was spread across the Pacific seaboard by trade. "We have records of it going as far north as southeastern Alaska," Todt said. "It could grow west of the Cascades, but it had to be cultivated. Tobacco was the only intensely cultivated species in the far west, and it was the most significant trade item."
Like much of native culture, however, the cultivation of People's Tobacco fell victim to the catastrophic disruptions caused by the European conquest. The plant now grows only in its native zone, south of San Francisco.
And yet tobacco grows again in the Rogue Valley. The plant Todt found on the Upper Klamath was the species Nicotiana attenuata, or Coyote Tobacco. It traditionally ranged from northern Mexico northward through the basin and range country, staying east of the Cascades except for westerly extensions along the Klamath and Columbia rivers.
"Coyote Tobacco was never recorded in Jackson County," Todt explained. "But then four or five years ago we were building the Dog Park. We put in the paved road that went behind Ashland Greenhouse, and that spring 20 or 30 Coyote Tobacco plants came up from the roadbed. I have no idea where that crushed rock came from, but it had Coyote seeds in it, and every year we find plants coming up around the Dog Park."
"Now I'm on a continual road hunt for Coyote plants."
A vagabond hitchhiker
Todt said that while many native plants are disappearing or having a difficult time, Coyote Tobacco, because of its remarkable properties, is bucking the trend and expanding its range.
The plant is remarkably responsive to fire, he explained. Seeds have been shown to survive 100 years or more between fires. But after a fire it blooms heavily for a year or two before dying down, waiting for the next fire. "It disappears, leaving behind a seed bank that only gets another jackpot release with the random lucky lever of a lighting strike."
Indians made use of this property to cultivate tobacco. In 1932, a Karuk herbalist named Phoebe Maddux explained in great detail how the Karuk burned over promising landscapes and spread seeds in the ash. The linguist John Peabody Harrington recorded Maddux's lore in the book "Tobacco Among the Karuk," which also recounts how tobacco infused Karuk culture.
Research has shown that germination in the plant is triggered by both an organic compound found in smoke and by the removal of germination inhibiting chemicals released by other plants. Fire meets both conditions, but the second condition is met thanks to what Todt calls the "mayhem of industrial progress."
"Coyote Tobacco likes disturbed landscapes, places where every other plant can't live, like in the crushed rock along roadways."
Last summer Todt was driving over the Siskiyou Summit and thought he caught a glimpse of Coyote Tobacco along the roadside. "But I had passed it and I wasn't sure. So I went down to the Hilt exit, came back over the hill to the first exit on this side of the summit, and doubled back to the summit so I could pull over. And there it was."
While not native to the summit, Coyote Tobacco took hold there thanks to what Todt euphemistically refers to as "the nitrogenous waste left by truckers." And now that it is perched atop the highest point on Interstate 5, the plant can ride like a vagabond hitchhiker north and south.
"If you're a plant and you want to expand your range, this is where you want to be," he said. "The seeds fall onto the sticky leaves, which are then carried by plows to the next place they are used. And if there's a disturbed landscape there, the plant will come up. Now Coyote Tobacco has a FedEx-style distribution system, and can spread all over the west."
While Todt feeds his addiction by keeping a lookout for unexpected new appearances of Coyote Tobacco, he is helping the process along a bit. "We're planting it as part of an ethno-botanical garden at North Mountain Park," he said with a smile, contemplating his next fix.