Botany (History)

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Botany (History)

Twenty-first-century botanical classifications include more than 240 denominations for the various species, subspecies, and varieties of the genus Nicotiana, which belongs to the family Solanaceae, subclass Asteridae, class Magnoliopsida (Dicotyledoneae). In spite of divergences in the formal nomenclature (system of naming) and in the eponyms (name of person, often abbreviated, linked to scientific name of species) used to identify its various species, botanists generally consider the genus Nicotiana to include more than 60 distinct species.

Origination of Nicotiana

Majority opinion among botanists holds that the genus originated in the Andean region, from which it spread throughout most of the American continent and adjacent islands before European colonizers settled the New World. Through the colonizers, it spread to the rest of the world, becoming established in wide areas of Europe, Asia, Africa, and Oceania. Of all the species of Nicotiana, two—N. tabacum L. and N. rustica L.—predominate in the world. Most other species have remained wild or have returned to the wild along the borders of agricultural regions.

Early European Classifications

European scientists' acquaintance with tobacco predates the consolidation of botany as a science, a process that began in the second half of the eighteenth century and has traditionally been associated with the generalized acceptance of the Linnaean system of taxonomy and nomenclature, as outlined by the Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus. As occurred with many other botanical species, the classification, denomination, and technical description of the tobacco plant was well underway in European botany before Linnaeus identified this genus of plants in his Species Plantarum (1753).

Divergences in the specific denominations should not negate the practical unanimity achieved among botanists by the end of the sixteenth century in classifying the various species of tobacco as belonging to a distinct genus, associated with other similar genii, grouped within the family Solanaceae. These included plants of both European (henbane, belladonna, mandrake) and American (pepper, potato, tomato) origin. Initially, some European authors considered tobacco a species of henbane (hyoscyamus in the Latin form of the Greek term hyoskyamos), which, owing to the medicinal uses stemming from its analgesic and narcotic properties, had already appeared in the medicinal plants treatise of the Greek medical practitioner Dioscorides in the first century c.e.

Nonetheless, from the time Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo provided a precise botanical description (in his Historia general y natural de las Indias occidentals (The General and Natural History of West Indies, 1535), it was clear that the similarities with henbane were circumstantial and not decisive insofar as the plant's classification as a species within the same genus was concerned. The European dissemination of the plant's image and pharmacological description via the work of Nicolás Monardes, Historia medicinal de las cosas que se traende nuestras Indias Occidentales (History of Medical Things Brought from Our West Indies, 1571), gave further credibility to separation of tobacco and henbane.

Despite the two sources, confusion of tobacco with henbane continued for some time in peripheral scientific circles. In the English-speaking world, for instance, the denomination "Henbane of Peru" gathered considerable strength because of its utilization by the English botanist John Gerard in his influential The Herball, or generall historie of plantes (1597).

When Monardes' work achieved wide circulation by way of several Latin versions by Charles de l'Écluse (Carolus Clusius) and numerous translations into Italian (Annibale Briganti), French (Jacques Gohory), and English (John Frampton), the classification of tobacco as a species of Hyoscyamus was definitively rejected. Thus, the Swiss botanist Caspar Bauhin's Pinax theatri Botanica (1623)—the seventeenth century's key reference work on botanical systematization, taxonomy, and nomenclature—definitively established the view of Nicotiana as a separate genus, although linked by family to Solanum, Hyoscyamus, Mondragora, and Papaver, among others.

From that point on, the botanical classification of tobacco would not undergo major changes. Thus, at the beginning of the second half of the seventeenth century, when the English and French took on the task of advancing the botanical systemization that the Italians, the Dutch, and the Swiss had developed in previous generations, the systemization did not change markedly. Both Robert Morison (Hortus regius blesensis, 1669) and John Ray (Historia Plantarum, 1704) viewed tobacco as a separate genus. Morison identified three separate species within the genus Nicotiana (N. major latifolia, N. major angustifolia, and N. minor), while Ray identified two species within a genus called Tabacco (T. latifolium and T. angustifolium) and two more within Nicotiana (N. minima and N. minor). Joseph Pitton de Tournefort's influential classification (Institutiones rei herbariae, 1700–1703) established the genus Nicotiana with more than six different species. Practically, these were the same species that Linnaeus would adopt in his proposal, though he would reduce their names to his definitive binomial notation, which used two Latin names: the first one for the genus, the second one for the species.

Linneaus's Classification

In spite of the fact that almost all Western languages have adopted the common name "tobacco," whose origin lies in the extinct Taino language spoken by the first inhabitants of the Greater Antilles, the denomination Nicotiana has been definitively established in botanical science since its selection by Carl Linnaeus in his Species Plantarum. This work provided a complete account of specific plant names, and is considered the foundation for the modern system of botanical nomenclature.

Linnaeus chose one of the denominations that had circulated among European botanists through the nearly two centuries that had elapsed since the first contact of the Spanish colonizers with tobacco. Concretely, the denomination Nicotiana was the Latinization—an indispensable process for the science of that era when internationalizing any proposal of this type—of the surname of Jean Nicot, French ambassador to the court of Lisbon, where he had become acquainted with the plant around 1559 and sent it to France. The proposal to dedicate the plant's Latin name to Nicot first arose in a French manual of agricultural techniques published by Jean Liébault in 1567, but for nearly two hundred years it had to compete with other proposals that appeared in numerous works by European botanists, including "herba sancta" and "herba di Santa Croce" (both used in several Italian treatises), "picietl" (from the nahuatl name of the Mexican Indians, reported by Francisco Hernández after his expedition in 1570–1577), and "herba petum" (from the name of the Brasilian Indians, reported by Portuguese navigators and made well known in Europe thanks to Clusius' work).

Linnaeus's work, moreover, established the scientific names for the two most common species—N. tabacum L. and N. rustica L.—that have remained definitive ever since, and proposed the names of five other species: N. fruticosa, N. glutinosa, N. paniculata, N. pusilla, and N. urens. Over the course of the succeeding two centuries, this initial classification has been the object of various challenges, culminating in the proposal of Thomas H. Goodspeed (1954) for the entire genus, which is the scheme most commonly accepted by taxonomists today.

See Also Tobacco as an Ornamental Plant.



Goodspeed, Thomas H. The Genus Nicotiana: Origins, Relationships, and Evolution of Its Species in the Light of Their Distribution, Morphology, and Cytogenetics. Vol. 16, Chronica Botanica. Waltham, Mass.: Chronica Botanica Co., 1954.

International Plant Names Index. Available:

Japan Tobacco Inc. The Genus Nicotiana Illustrated. Tokyo: Author, 1994.

López-Piñero, J. M., and M. L. López-Terrada. La influencia española en la introducción en Europa de las plantas americanas (1493–1623) (The Spanish Influence on the Introduction in Europe of American Plants [1493–1623]). Valencia: Instituto de Estudios Documentales e Históricos sobre la Ciencia, 1997.

Pardo-Tomás, J., and M. L. López-Terrada. Las primeras noticias sobre plantas americanas en las relaciones de viajes y crónicas de Indias (1493–1553) (First News on American Plants in Travels' Accounts and Chronicles of Indies [1493–1553]). Valencia: Instituto de Estudios Documentales e Históricos sobre la Ciencia, 1993.

Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. Available: <>.

consolidation when numerous smaller units are combined into a larger one. In agriculture, consolidating small farms into one large farm usually makes operations more efficient and profitable.