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What is Rustica Tobacco?

rustica tobacco in a pile

When we talk about tobacco, we’re almost always referring to the species Nicotiana tabacum, or “common tobacco”.  What many don’t know is that there’s an entirely different species of tobacco that was cultivated in North America long before common tobacco made its way to the colonies – Nicotiana rustica, or “rustica tobacco".  Also known as “strong tobacco” or “Aztec tobacco,” this type of tobacco has largely fallen out of favor over many years, mainly because of its staggering nicotine potency.

But, Nicotiana rustica plays a major role in the history of the tobacco trade, and it does continue to exist on the market, meaning that you may encounter it without knowing exactly what it is.  Because of that, we’re going to walk you through everything you need to know.

Where Does Rustica Tobacco Come from?

Rustica tobacco is derived from an entirely different plant than what we’re used to.  It comes from a rainforest plant that grows abundantly in South America, known as Solanaceae.  Rustica tobacco is known for being about 9 times as potent as common tobacco, yielding up to 9% nicotine, while common tobacco typically yields between 0.5-3%. 

Common tobacco – aka Nicotiana tabacum – came to America around the late 15th century, and it didn’t take long for the plant to become a staple of early American farming.  Before this variety of tobacco made its way to North America, however, cultures in North and South America were growing rustica tobacco.  Its high nicotine content gave it something of a ceremonial connotation, and the Native Americans used tobacco rustica exclusively, to the point that they were wary of trying Nicotiana tabacum when Christopher Columbus first introduced it to them.  Now, while Native Americans do, to a small extent, use rustica tobacco, it’s common tobacco that is the most widely used among native tribes in the US.

Historically, rustica tobacco has also been part of shamanic practices in South America, and it’s also been widely used in Russia, as the cold climate of the country makes growing common tobacco very difficult – rustica tobacco is a hardier plant that can handle colder climates.  This type of tobacco also has roots in Turkey and Sudan, and has been popular to smoke after dinner in Vietnam.

Ultimately, rustica tobacco comes from the Amazon, where it grows wild.  Today, it’s no longer cultivated in North America, and is hard to find outside of Asian, Middle Eastern, and Eastern European markets.

What is the Leaf Like?

The rustica tobacco leaf is known for being wider and rounder in appearance than that of common tobacco, to the point that it’s pretty easy to tell the difference between the two.  The leaves are also notably hardier, with a sturdier, thicker structure that allows it to survive in colder climates, while Nicotiana tabacum’s leaves are more tender by comparison.

Nicotine and Sugar Content

Rustica tobacco yields an incredibly potent amount of nicotine – 9%, which can be far, far stronger than the tobaccos that you’re used to.  Because of its high nicotine content, it can be quite harsh to smoke, and can cause dizziness, upset stomach, and other symptoms associated with consuming too much nicotine – unless the user has a tolerance.  It’s also a low-sugar plant.

Flavor and Aroma Profiles

Unsurprisingly, rustica tobacco has a very strong flavor, being a full-bodied species of tobacco.  Its flavor is quite earthy and woody, but one thing we want to point out is that today, if you were to buy rustica tobacco, you’d likely find it in a tobacco blend, with burley or Virginia tobacco added to it to balance out its intensity.  Not only that, but certain European markets employ a sun-curing process to Nicotiana rustica that was never done traditionally, which enhances its sweetness to make it more palatable.

Smoke Quality

If you’re going to smoke rustica tobacco all on its own, you should expect it to be quite harsh – after all, 9% nicotine is going to leave an impression when you inhale.  You can build up a tolerance to this over time, as we have all done with common tobacco, but again, we recommend going easy with this tobacco because of its potency, and making sure that if you’re going to be smoking straight rustica tobacco, you do so only after consuming a full meal.

Rustica Tobacco – A Force to Be Reckoned with in the Tobacco World

It’s safe to say that most people have no need to ever try rustica tobacco on its own – after all, 9% nicotine is not something most people would find enjoyable, believe it or not – but you’d be surprised by how useful it is in both pipe and cigar tobaccos when blended with milder varieties.  And, this particular species shows off the surprising diversity of the tobacco plant, while its history demonstrates the fascinating ways in which tobacco has been used ceremoniously for thousands of years.

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