Tobacco (Nicotiana tabacum), the cultivated South American intoxicant, growing as a fence weed in one of Collingwood’s mixed use streets.
Experimentation with the cultivation of Tobacco began in NSW from the earliest days of the colony, and a certain amount was likely grown in Victoria informally for sheep washes from the earliest squatter days. By the 1860s, increasingly organised production was fuelled first by the gold rush and then by the U.S. Civil War, which disrupted access to production centred in the American south. The introduction of new American flue-cured varieties (which responded well to colouring and drying in a heated kiln) in the 1930s improved the value of the Australian crop, but the price and crop area were supported in the 20th century by national and state policies. Most prominent was the Local Leaf Content requirement, which required products to contain a set quantity of Australian tobacco, starting at 7.5% in the 1950s and reaching 57% in 1977.
Although initially feeding a vibrant artisanal sector of small cigar and cigarette manufacturers, by the mid-twentieth century, modern machinery, marketing and capitalisation drove consolidation into a few international players. These companies would ultimately succeed in lobbying for the repeal of Australian content requirements on the basis of the high cost and low quality of the domestic crop; at the same time, public health policy was turning against the product altogether. In 2006 the last excise licenses were bought out by the Commonwealth government, effectively ending the legal production of tobacco in Australia.
The plant endures in Melbourne. Described in Vicflora as ‘infrequently recorded… from vacant lots and weed infested land bordering residencies’, it is sparingly but nonetheless established. An annual bred to put its resources into leaf production, tobacco is poorly adapted to the weed lifestyle, sticks out like a sore thumb, and is easily controlled by slashing, pulling or herbicide application long before it reaches maturity. Yet here it is.