Has Tobacco Ever Been Cultivated as a Food Source?

iStock/DanBrandenburg
iStock/DanBrandenburg

One of the most profitable American crops is something you won’t find in the produce aisle. Though tobacco production has declined in recent years, the crop still abundant, with farmers in the U.S. growing more than 710 million pounds of the plant in 2017. Tobacco is surprisingly nutritious—but it's also toxic in its pure state, which is why throughout its history, humans have been more interested in the plant as something to smoke rather than something to eat.

Native Americans discovered the psychoactive effects of nicotine relatively early in human history. The oldest archaeological evidence of tobacco residue in a smoke pipe dates back 3000 years ago—around the same time people in modern Alabama, where the pipe was found, began cultivating foods like sunflower and squash. It's even possible that the desire to grow tobacco spurred agriculture in the area, even though it was never a food source.

We know why Native Americans cultivated the plant—smoking it played an important role in sacred rituals—but how they learned it was something that was enjoyable to smoke in the first place is less clear. It may be that South American herbalists stumbled upon its dopamine-boosting effects when studying plant life in their environment. In order to know which plants were poisonous and which had medicinal benefits, herbalists experimented with every plant they could find, and after sniffing ground-up tobacco leaves they may have realized it was something special. Another possibility is that someone came across a wild tobacco plant that had caught fire accidentally and discovered the pleasure of inhaling the smoke that way.

Tobacco gained new levels of popularity when the first European explorers arrived on American shores in the 15th and 16th centuries. Native tribes shared tobacco pipes with the visitors and gave them the dried leaves and seeds to take home with them. In 1612, John Rolfe planted the first commercial tobacco crop in Virginia, and with scientific evidence of the dire health risks still centuries away, recreational tobacco use spread across the world.

People have chewed, smoked, and snorted tobacco to reap the desired effects, but it's never been common to eat it. European colonists at Jamestown cultivated the plant before they started growing other crops, and following a winter when two-thirds of the residents starved to death, authorities mandated that farmers must grow food in addition to tobacco.

Though it isn't a produce item, tobacco does have some impressive nutritional qualities. The plant contains Fraction-1-protein (F-1-p): a type of protein that's odorless, colorless, and non-allergenic with a cholesterol-lowering amino acid composition. Tobacco F-1-p has proven more beneficial than the same protein extracted from soy, corn, and dairy, and it may be one of the healthiest proteins found in nature.

Unfortunately, tobacco also contains the toxic chemical nicotine (a natural pesticide) which negates any nutritional properties it has. Even if someone tried to eat the leaves in their raw state, they would get sick or possibly even die from nicotine poisoning. That's why when European colonists were starving to death, they didn't try turning their tobacco crops into salads.

Today the dangers of tobacco are indisputable, but the crop has the potential to save lives as a food source. When extracted from the plant, tobacco F-1-p is completely safe to consume, and it can be cheaply sourced from the many farms already growing tobacco around the world. Though the nutritional benefits of tobacco have been known for years, it's still an untapped resource—largely thanks to the stigma attached to the crop.

Why Are Poinsettias Associated with Christmas?

iStock
iStock

Certain Christmas traditions never seem to go out of style. Along with wreaths, gingerbread cookies, and reruns of A Christmas Story sits the poinsettia, a red-tinged leafy arrangement that’s become synonymous with the holiday. Upwards of 100 million of them are sold in the six weeks before December 25.

Why do people associate the potted plant with seasonal cheer? Chalk it up to some brilliant marketing.

In 1900, a German immigrant named Albert Ecke was planning to move his family to Fiji. Along the way, they became enamored of the beautiful sights found in Los Angeles—specifically, the wild-growing poinsettia, which was named after Joel Roberts Poinsett, the U.S.-Mexican ambassador who first brought it to the States in 1828. Ecke saw the appeal of the plant’s bright red leaves that blossomed in winter (it’s not actually a flower, despite the common assumption) and began marketing it from roadside stands to local growers as "the Christmas plant."

The response was so strong that poinsettias became the Ecke family business, with their crop making up more than 90 percent of all poinsettias sold throughout most of the 20th century: Ecke, his son Paul, and Paul’s son, Paul Jr., offered a unique single-stem arrangement that stood up to shipping, which their competitors couldn’t duplicate. When Paul III took over the business in the 1960s, he began sending arrangements to television networks for use during their holiday specials. In a priceless bit of advertising, stars like Ronald Reagan, Dinah Shore, and Bob Hope were sharing screen time with the plant, leading millions of Americans to associate it with the holiday.

While the Ecke single-stem secret was eventually cracked by other florists—it involved grafting two stems to make one—and their market share dwindled, their innovative marketing ensured that the poinsettia would forever be linked to Christmas.

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Why Does Santa Claus Live at the North Pole?

allanswart/iStock via Getty Images
allanswart/iStock via Getty Images

As children settle in for a restless night’s sleep this Christmas Eve, they’ll no doubt be picturing Santa Claus on his way from the snowy ’scapes of the North Pole to deliver them Star Wars LEGO sets, Frozen 2 dolls, and everything else on their wish list. They picture Santa at the North Pole, of course, because they’ve seen him living there in numerous Christmas movies, books, and television specials, from perennial Rankin/Bass programs to more modern classics like 2003’s Elf.

While it might seem a little more magical if we told you that nobody really knows why Santa lives there, there is a relatively traceable paper trail: The first known reference to Santa’s North Pole residence is in an 1866 cartoon from Harper’s Weekly.

According to Smithsonian.com, famed political cartoonist Thomas Nast—who was also responsible for establishing the donkey and elephant as the symbols for the Democratic and Republican parties, respectively—first started creating Harper’s Weekly Christmas cartoons as Union propaganda for the Civil War in January 1863. Borrowing imagery from Clement Clarke Moore’s (alleged) 1823 poem “A Visit From St. Nicholas” (which you’d probably recognize as “’Twas the Night Before Christmas”), Nast developed the white-bearded, rosy-cheeked, all-around jolly guy that we know today, and showed him passing out gifts to Union soldiers, climbing into a chimney as a soldier’s wife prays, and more.

harper's weekly santa claus at camp by thomas nast
Thomas Nast, Harris Brisbane Dick Fund, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The cartoons became so popular that Nast branched out from his source material and began inventing his own details to add to Saint Nick—like where he’s from, for example. A December 29, 1866 issue of Harper’s Weekly debuted a multi-image cartoon titled “Santa Claus and His Works,” which includes a small inscription along the circular border that reads Santa Claussville, N.P. According to The New York Times, we don’t know exactly why Nast chose the North Pole (or if it was even his own idea), but there are a few reasons it made sense for the time period.

For one, Santa Claus was already widely associated with snow because most of the publishing companies producing Christmas cards and other content were located in New England, where it actually snows around Christmas. Furthermore, the 1840s and 1850s were partly characterized by high-profile—and ill-fated, in the Franklin expedition's case—attempts to explore the Arctic, and the public was generally interested in the mysterious, poorly-charted region. Because the Pole was unoccupied, Santa and his elves could toil the year away without interference from prying eyes; and, because it was unclaimed, Santa could remain a bastion of benevolence for every nation.

merry old santa claus by thomas nast
"Merry Old Santa Claus," perhaps Nast's most famous illustration of Santa, from the January 1, 1881 edition of Harper's Weekly.
Thomas Nast, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Though we’ll likely never know Nast’s personal rationale behind placing Santa Claus in the North Pole, one thing’s for sure: At this point, it’s hard to imagine him living anywhere else. It’s also hard to imagine him riding a broom, wielding a gun, or smoking cigarettes (find out the stories behind those early Santas here).

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