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PAL Questions: 2 - Garden Tools:
I am about to plant Nicotiana mutabilis seeds, and I wonder: if neonicotinoid insecticides are harmful to bees, is the pollen in Nicotiana also harmful? Also, is it a bad idea to plant Nicotiana near my tomatoes (could it spread tobacco mosaic virus)?
Although neonicotinoids are not currently implicated as a direct cause of Colony Collapse Disorder, the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation's "Are Neonicotinoids Killing Bees?" says that "recent research suggests that neonicotinoids may make honey bees more susceptible to parasites and pathogens, including the intestinal parasite Nosema, which has been implicated as one causative factor in CCD." The brief summary of the full report on this issue is well worth reading.
I doubt whether the pollen or nectar of the ornamental plant Nicotiana has the same properties as a formulated systemic pesticide which contains a synthetic form of nicotine. For an example of the ingredients in a neonicotinoid pesticide, see this fact sheet for Imidacloprid from the National Pesticide Information Center. I found a scientific article ("The effects of nectar-nicotine on colony fitness of caged honeybees" by N. Singaravelan et al., in Journal of Chemical Ecology, January 2006) which says that the floral nectar of Nicotiana species and of Tilia cordata contains trace amounts of nicotine. The authors concluded that "results indicate that honeybees can cope with naturally occurring concentrations of nicotine, without notable mortality, even when consumed in large quantities for more than 3 weeks."
As for your other question, Nicotiana does sometimes get tobacco mosaic virus, though the National Garden Bureau says the plant seldom has much trouble from it. Still, it is probably a good idea to keep some distance between your Nicotiana and your tomatoes (and any other solanaceous plants, like potato, eggplant, pepper) just to be on the safe side, or at least be sure to change gloves and clean tools after handling the plants. The main method of transmission of tobacco mosaic virus is "mechanical," that is, by handling a plant with the virus and then handling plants that are susceptible to it.
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Can I grow flowering tobacco varieties, such as Nicotiana sylvestris, and harvest the leaves for smoking?
Nicotiana species are in the Family Solanaceae. Nicotiana sylvestris is a parent of cultivated tobacco, N. tabacum. You can surmise that the cultivated tobacco plant was bred for characteristics that the ornamental plants were not—that is, use of the leaves for smoking without (immediate, anyway!) dire toxic consequences. All Nicotiana species have toxic properties, but levels of those substances may vary from species to species, so it would be unwise to assume that leaves from the other varieties are 'safe' to smoke. For example Nicotiana glauca, a weedy species also called tree tobacco, does not contain nicotine but instead anabasine, which is extremely toxic to humans and animals, according to this weed report from Weed Control in Natural Areas in the Western United States.
According to The North American Guide to Common Poisonous Plants and Mushrooms (Nancy J. Turner and Patrick von Aderkas, Timber Press 2009), "all tobaccos should be considered poisonous to consume (smoking brings its own risks); some have caused fatalities. […] Poisoning through intentional or accidental misuse of nicotine and products containing it is a relatively common occurrence. Related species may contain other toxic alkaloids, chemically similar to nicotine." For this reason, we suggest that you enjoy Nicotiana sylvestris, N. alata, and other ornamental species for their flowers only. Also avoid growing Nicotiana near plants like tomatoes and others in the Solanaceae which are susceptible to tobacco mosaic virus (in fact, don't touch those plants after handling Nicotiana, or smoking tobacco products).
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January 13 2017 10:35:53