Rabbit Tobacco, Wildflower or Distinguished Herb
A couple of summers ago I was on the Greenway with Gill Heywood and Sally Kesler, identifying and labeling wildflowers, one of the favorite activities of the Frogs Eyes. All the members of this informal group of plant lovers are way over my head in knowledge and ability but I keep hanging on, hoping to gain a scrap of the wildflower skill that they have.
On this particular day we encountered Rabbit Tobacco, or Gnaphalium obtusifolium. Now the common name stirred a distant memory but when Gill related that this species was of the Composite family I thought, “Nah, can't be the rabbit tobacco I remember”. Composites include such well-known beauties as asters, daisies, and sunflowers. Rabbit Tobacco is an attractive wildflower when blooming but I could see little resemblance to a daisy.
Rabbit Tobacco is an annual but on occasion is biennial. The plant has branching clusters of white tubular flower heads on 1 to 3 foot stems and narrow, elliptical leaves. The species is not fond of low or damp areas but can thrive on roadsides, slopes or waste
places. Most wildflower books don't list the plant but many herbal references do.
Rabbit Tobacco blooms in late summer to fall but when I encountered the plant again in the winter I realized that this was indeed the same plant I remembered from my youth. When I was growing up in rural north Louisiana, Hayward Smith, a classmate told me that this weed that grew in the pasture could be smoked and that we should try it.
We fashioned pipes out of large acorns and used a grass reed as the pipe stem. The leaves of the plant were dry and grew up the entire length of the stem. We smoked the stuff, or tried to and I surely turned green. The “tobacco” had a sharp acrid taste and I saw no fun in that exercise at all. In fact, I'm sure it was this teenage experience that made me swear off smoking from that day forward.
Seeing the dried reminders of those days on the Greenway prompted me to do a little more study of the little more study of the plant and I was surprised at what I learned. I first consulted Wilford Corbin, a local historian/naturalist and friend in the Nantahala Hiking Club. He too had tried rabbit tobacco as a lad but stated that he and his friends rolled the tobacco in paper torn from brown paper bags. Wilford did not recall rabbit tobacco being a poor man's alternative to real cigarettes but was simply something country kids did. Wilford humorously speculated that Rabbit Tobacco may have possibilities as a cash crop since using it would perhaps prevent the thousands of deaths associated with the use of real tobacco.
When I did a GOOGLE internet search of rabbit tobacco I found the plant has quite a history. Native Americans believed the plant had spiritual powers. Cherokee and Lumbee Indians of North Carolina burned the leaves in sweat baths as it caused profuse sweating. Other tribes rubbed chewed leaves on their bodies to strengthen them or for protection in battle. Others believed the smoke of rabbit tobacco had restorative powers or would prevent bad luck.
In modern times, many herb enthusiasts swear rabbit tobacco is a sedative and mild pain reliever and may even stop diarrhea. They use it to treat a variety of throat and bronchial conditions including coughs, colds, and asthma. Skin or mouth sores and even burns are treated with a poultice of rabbit tobacco. It is said that tea bags of rabbit tobacco leaves are produced to treat respiration problems, colds, etc.
Other internet “sources” swear the rabbit tobacco tastes good as a smoke and is nicotine-free. It's obvious this non-obtrusive flower has much value to many. As for me, I will always admire the beauty of the Rabbit Tobacco plant but leave the smoking of it to others.