The very first time I saw a tobacco plant I was awestruck. It was over eight feet tall with big, fat green leaves and gorgeous little pink flowers shooting straight up from the top of the plant.
“What kind of plant is that?!” I asked my friend.
“Oh, it’s a tobacco plant,” he answered. “Don’t tell anyone I have it. It’s illegal.”
I learned two things that day: tobacco is indeed a sacred plant. One look and you know you are in the presence of something special. And, contrary to popular belief, it is perfectly legal to grow your own tobacco in the United States.
There are a couple of reasons to grow your own tobacco. First, it’s gorgeous and adds ornamental value to any garden. Second, it’s incredibly easy to dry and cure the leaves for ceremonial purposes. Sure, I guess you could also roll it up and smoke it but I don’t need to tell you that smoking is dangerous for your health. Or do I? Consider this my version of the Surgeon General’s warning:
Smoking is stupid. It will give you wrinkles, stain your teeth, give you a cackling laugh and most certainly will cause one sort of cancer or another. The information presented in this article is only meant to be used for sacred or ceremonial purposes. Proceed with caution.
Plus, if you want to smoke tobacco you’re going to need to cure it, which is different than drying it. I’m just going to tell you how to dry it.
You can do a quick Google search and come up with several places to order tobacco seeds or starts. The seeds are really very tiny and can be difficult to germinate. If you don’t have much luck with plants you may wish to order starts.
Start the seeds indoors. Sprinkle them over a seed-starting or potting-soil mix and gently sprinkle water over them to sink them into the soil. Keep the soil moist but don’t overwater. In about 10 days you will see little sprouts.
After a couple of weeks, transplant the sprouts to a well-tilled and fertilized area of your garden that gets a lot of sun. Tend to it like you would any other plant: keep it watered and watch for signs of distress or pests. After about four months the plant should reach maturity.
When it comes time to harvest the tobacco be sure to approach the plant with respect and reverence and in a manner that is in alignment with your own customs. You may choose to cut down the entire plant or to simply harvest a few leaves. Hang the plant or the leaves in a well-ventilated place that is also dry and warm. Garages and front or back porches are good options but be sure that the leaves will not be exposed to direct sunlight, which could burn them.
Allow the leaves to dry for several days or weeks, depending on the climate you are in.
And you’re done! You now have some organic, homegrown tobacco leaves to gift or use in ceremonies.
Darla Antoine is an enrolled member of the Okanagan Indian Band in British Columbia and grew up in Eastern Washington State. For three years, she worked as a newspaper reporter in the Midwest, reporting on issues relevant to the Native and Hispanic communities, and most recently served as a producer for Native America Calling. In 2011, she moved to Costa Rica, where she currently lives with her husband and their infant son. She lives on an organic and sustainable farm in the “cloud forest”—the highlands of Costa Rica, 9,000 feet above sea level. Due to the high elevation, the conditions for farming and gardening are similar to that of the Pacific Northwest—cold and rainy for most of the year with a short growing season. Antoine has an herb garden, green house, a bee hive, cows, a goat, and two trout ponds stocked with hundreds of rainbow trout.