The scientific name was given by Frederic Pursh in his Flora Americae Septentrionalis
(North American Plants, published in 1814).
A portion of the original label, written by Lewis on the specimen blotter. It reads: ". . . 12th of October at the Ricares town. This is the tobacco which they cultivate."1
Lewis mentioned two species of tobacco, possibly Nicotiana quadrivalvis and N. rustica — a Mexican species called Aztec tobacco — that the Arikaras cultivated "for the purpose of smoking in which way they use it altogether, as they neither snuff nor chew."2 He briefly described the first, or "larger species," without mentioning the four valves, and then detailed the Indians' method of cultivation:
The process was of particular interest to Lewis, himself a tobacco grower.
Lewis found the Arikaras' tobacco "very plesent," adding, "it does not affect the nerves in the same manner that the tobacco cultivated in the U'S. dose." Though obviously aware that the tobacco grown in his own part of the country had a unique property, he couldn't have identified it, for it was not until 1828 that scientists identified the alkaloid component of N. tabacum as what we call nicotine. Most varieties now used in the manufacture of smokables and chewables have a nicotine content of a little over eight percent, based on the dry weight of cured leaves. Research has indicated that N. quadrivalvis had a nicotine content of approximately 0.16 percent. However, N. rustica, which may have been used less frequently, had a varying nicotine content that ranged from 2.88 percent up to 8.26 percent.3
1. According to Clark (October 12, 1804), these specimens and seeds were given them by Pocasse ("Hay"), chief of the "1st village" (Rhtarahe) of the Arikaras, in South Dakota near the North Dakota state line, a few miles above the Grand River.
2. Lewis's natural history notes, Thwaites, Moulton, loc. cit. In Lewis's time, Nicotiana quadrivalvis Pursh and N. rustica were cultivars among Indians on the Great Plains, having long since been imported for the purpose of cultivation from the vicinity of eastern California. They are now extinct, and in fact N. quadrivalvis is the only plant Lewis discovered that has not been found since then, even in in its original habitat. James L. Reveal, Gary e. Moulton, and Alfred E. Schuyler, "The Lewis and Clark collections of vascular plants: Names, types, and comments," Proceedings of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadlphia, Vol. 149 (29 January 1999), 33–34.
3. Joseph C. Winter, Tobacco Use by Native North Americans: Sacred Smoke and Silent Killer (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2000), 183. Other members of the family Solanaceae–potato or nightshade–contain nicotine, the more notable being Atropa bella-donna (bella-donna of Europe), Datura stramonium (jimsonweed, a plant of the Americas), and Solanum tuberosum (Irish potato, an Old World species). Small amounts are reported in such plants as celery, papaya, coca, English walnut and even non-flowering plants like the club-moss Lycopodium clavatum (running ground-moss) found in the eastern United States and in the Pacific Northwest. The amount of nicotine in Nicotiana tabacum is many times greater than in any of these.