Varieties of Tobacco

A complete story on the origin of the early varieties of tobacco would be a very significant contribution, since very little is known about them. Most writers agree that the tobacco cultivated by the English settlers was not the same “Nicotiana rustica” grown by the Indians, but “Nicotiana tabacum”, the type found growing in South America and the West Indies. The difference between these two types was profound, both in taste and size. The plant native to Virginia was small, growing to a height of only two or three feet, whereas “Nicotiana tabacum” grew from six to nine feet tall. As to taste, George Arents remarked, “the same difference in taste exists between these two species, as between a crab apple and an Albemarle pippin.”

All during the colonial period tobacco was classified into two main varieties, Oronoco and sweet-scented. Oronoco had a large porous pointed leaf and was strong in taste. Sweet-scented was milder, the leaf was rounder and the fibers were finer. We are also told that sweet-scented grew mostly in the lower parts of Virginia, along the York and James rivers, and later on the Rappahannock and on the southside of the Potomac. Oronoco was generally planted up the Chesapeake Bay area and in the back settlements on the strong land along all the rivers.

Oronoco is thought to have originated in the vicinity of the Orinoco River valley in Venezuela. After being brought to a different environment and climate in Virginia, various varieties or strains of Oronoco were developed or came about naturally. In the late 1600’s a very fair and bright large Oronoco, Prior, and Kite’s Foot were mentioned. As the years passed planters came to distinguish other varieties such as Hudson, Frederick, Thick-Joint, Shoe-string, Thickset, Blue Pryor, Medley Pryor, White Stem, Townsend, Long Green, Little Frederic, and Browne Oronoco.

A type of tobacco referred to locally as “yellow”, had been growing on the poor, thin, and sandy soils in and around Pittsylvania County, Virginia, and Caswell County, North Carolina since the early 1820’s. It was just another one of the many local varieties and attracted little attention until a very lucky accident occurred in 1839. A Negro slave on the Slade farm in Caswell County, North Carolina, fell asleep while fire-curing tobacco. Upon awakening, he quickly piled some dry wood on the dying embers; the sudden drying heat from the revived fires produced a profound effect–this particular barn of tobacco cured a bright yellow. This accident produced a curing technique that soon became known throughout the surrounding area in Virginia and North Carolina. This tobacco became known as “Bright-Tobacco”, and this area the “Bright-Tobacco Belt”.

The many variations were due to the different environments, cultural practices, methods of curing and breeding; and each of these variations was given a name because of some particular quality it possessed, or was given the name of a person or place. The difference in the composition of the “Bright-Tobacco” grown in the poor sandy soil, such as that found in Pittsylvania County, caused the tobacco to cure bright. This so-called new type of tobacco was of the old Virginia Oronoco and if grown on heavier soils, it produced a much heavier bodied tobacco and would not make the same response when flue-cured. Only the tobacco grown in the soils such as that in the “Bright-Tobacco Belt” cured bright, which indicates that it was the soil and not the variety that caused the tobacco to be bright when cured.

The origin and development of sweet-scented tobacco remains somewhat of a mystery, and we can only make conjectures as to what happened. Some authorities hold that the present day Maryland tobacco is descended from the sweet-scented of the Colonial days, while others believe it to be a descendant of Oronoco. It seems quite possible that there was only one variety of “Nicotiana tabacum” when John Rolfe first began his experiments, and there is reason to believe that this first tobacco was sweet-scented. The name Oronoco probably came after the name sweet-scented had already been established. It also appears that sweet-scented disappeared as soon as the soils along the James, York, Rappahannock, and Potomac rivers were exhausted.

George Arents, probably the foremost authority on the history of tobacco, in referring to Rolfe’s first shipment to England wrote, “So fragrant was the leaf that it almost at once began to be known as ‘sweet-scented.'” Ralph Hamor, in 1614, declared that the colony grew tobacco equal to that of Trinidad, “sweet and pleasant.” Jerome E. Brooks wrote that Rolfe’s importation of tobacco seed resulted in the famous Virginia sweet-scented leaf.

Once the cultivation began to spread into the areas away from the sandy loam along the James and York rivers, the type of soil necessary for the production of the sweet-scented, other varieties began to develop. In 1688 John Clayton wrote, “I have observed, that that which is called Pine-wood Land tho’ it be a sandy soil, even the sweet-scented Tobacco that grows thereon, is large and porous, agreeable to Aranoko Tobacco; it smokes as coursely as Aranoko.” While on his visit to Virginia, Clayton visited a poor, worn-out plantation along the James River. The owner, a widow, complained to him that her land would produce only four or five leaves of tobacco per plant. Clayton suggested that one of the bogs on the plantation be drained and planted in tobacco. A few years later Clayton happened to meet this same lady in London, selling the first crop of tobacco grown on the drained bog. She related to Clayton that the product was “so very large, that it was suspected to be of the Aranoko kind….”

In 1724 Hugh Jones observed that the farther a person went northward from the York or southward from the James, the poorer the quality of the sweet-scented tobacco, “but this maybe (I believe) attributed in some Measure to the Seed and Management, as well as to the Land and Latitude.” John Custis in a letter to Philip Perry in 1737 wrote that he grew Oronoco on the Eastern Shore of Virginia using the same seed as he did for his sweet-scented York crop. It appears that as the sandy loam necessary for the growing of sweet-scented tobacco became exhausted and the planters expanded into the heavy fertile soils, the tobacco became the strong, coarse Oronoco. As virgin soil became scarce, Oronoco was no longer confined to the richest soils, nor was it thought to be less sweet-scented than its rivals. Toward the end of the eighteenth century tobacco inspectors found it so difficult to distinguish the various types, that they classed all tobacco as Oronoco. Thus it seems quite possible that both Oronoco and sweet-scented were originally one variety which became two, primarily because of the different soil composition.

Herndon, Melvin. Tobacco in Colonial Virginia. Williamsburg, Virginia. 1957.

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