The plant is part of the genus Nicotiana and of the Solanaceae (nightshade) family. While more than 70 species of tobacco are known, the chief commercial crop is N. tabacum. The more potent variant N. rustica is also used around the world.
Tobacco, a native plant of the Americas, was first discovered thousands of years ago. Tobacco as a crop was pioneered by communities in the Andes at a much later time. Most estimates put this between 5000 and 3000 BC. From the Andes of South America, tobacco spread north and then on to the colonies, islands and continents beyond. With steadily increasing demand tobacco plants were transported for cultivation to countries all over the world.
Tobacco chewing was probably the first way that tobacco was consumed. Anthropologists have also speculated that ‘snuffing’ – taking in powdered tobacco through the nose – probably pre-dated smoking. Snuffing tubes are among the earliest tobacco artifacts discovered in the Americas.
The early Spanish explorers were probably the first Europeans to try smoking tobacco leaf. They wrapped leaf in corn husk to produce the forerunner of the cigarette. Cigars are typically larger in size, and are wrapped in the tobacco leaf itself. As well as smoking tobacco, Spanish explorers cultivated plants in botanical gardens as a medicinal curiosity.
In 1560, Jean Nicot de Villemain brought tobacco seeds and leaves as a "wonder drug" to the French court. In 1586 the botanist Jaques Dalechamps gave the plant the name of Herba nicotiana, to Honor Jean Nicot. It was considered a decorative plant at first, then a panacea, before it became a common snuff and tobacco plant. Tobacco arrived in Africa at the beginning of the 17th century. The leaf extract was a popular pest control method up to the beginning of the 20th century.
By the 20th century people from all over the world has succumbed to the habit. Today the American continent remains the world's largest producer of tobacco, closely followed by China and 90 other countries also cultivate the plant commercially.