Thursday, February 26, 2015

Sweet Everlasting Rabbit Tobacco

Sweet Everlasting, true to its name, stands strong despite what the winter threw at it along my driveway.

     Sweet Everlasting (Pseudognaphalium obtusifolium, formerly Gnaphalium obtusifoilum) is one of those plants that seems to go unnoticed except for winter, yet has a litany of names associated with it. Indeed, few plants have as many common names as this annual plant of old fields and meadows. Many have to do with its persistent nature, its uses, or pleasant smell, but others seem so random.

Sweet White Balsam growing in an old field.

     Among the variety of names associated with it are the following: Sweet Everlasting, Ladies Tobacco, Poverty Weed, Owl's Crown, Catsfoot, Fussy-Gussy, Old Field Posey, Life-of-Man, Life Everlasting, Chafe Weed, None-So-Pretty, Horse Weed, Sweet Cudweed, Fragrant Everlasting, Indian Posey, Cherokee Tobacco, Sweet White Balsam, Field Balsam, and Rabbit Tobacco.
     Rabbit Tobacco is my favorite, probably because that is the name I learned it as, learning to smell it to confirm its identity. It has indeed been used as a tobacco substitute, especially by the poor or kids who couldn't purchase real cigarettes. But it has also been smoked medicinally, perhaps ironically, for all sorts of breathing disorders as well.
      Its smell is one of its most distinctive features. To some it smells like tobacco, to others like vanilla, and yet others like maple syrup. Few though find the odor to be unpleasant or unmemorable. The fragrance is also extremely long lasting, well into the winter or even the following spring, especially if moistened. During colonial times it was brought into homes to help perfume them.

The flowers of Fragrant Everlasting are unremarkable, always seeming to me that they need to open just a bit more. 

     The plant can be 2-3 feet tall, standing throughout the winter. The leaves tend to be woolly underneath and the flowers are bud-like with yellowish centers, seeming half closed. It can grow in poor soil conditions, taking full sun and dry conditions. I actually encourage its growth out of the cinder blocks that line my driveway. The seeds need light in order to germinate, perhaps aided in this by falling from the still-standing plant stems very late in the season. I usually tap the seed heads of this annual onto the dirt-filled cinder blocks to make sure I always have a few for the following year.
     It has been used by people for a variety of different reasons. Its use for smoking and perfuming homes has been mentioned already. Famous ethnobotanist Daniel Moerman listed numerous ways that Native American Indian tribes used these plants. The Alabama used it as a sedative to treat nerves or sleeplessness, sometimes using it as a face-wash to treat insomnia. The Cherokee thought it could treat twitching, muscle cramps, rheumatism, pains, colds, coughs, asthma, and various diseases, often employing it in sweat baths. The Rappahannocks had similar beliefs, thinking it could treat chills, fevers, and smoking it for asthma.
     The Cheyenne burned the leaves to purify gifts to the spirits, while their warriors chewed it to protect themselves prior to battles. The Creek thought it could be used to combat vomiting, against mumps, to prevent people from running away, as an inhalant for colds, as a sleep aid, to flavor medicines, and even to ban ghosts and other bad spirits. The Choctaw treated colds and lung issues with it. The Montagnais thought it could deal with coughing and tuberculosis, as did the Chippewa, Yuchi, Meskwaki, and Potawatami. The Menominee inhaled it for headaches and to treat fainting, also believing that fumigating a home with it would deal with ghosts.

I enjoy a warm cupful of Rabbit Tobacco tea, both inhaling the vapors and drinking it, hoping it will help with a persistent cough I was dealing with.

     As you can see, this plant with so many names has an equal number of uses. As far as for me, I rarely use it for more than pulling a leaf or bruising the plant for a quick whiff as I walk past it along my driveway, and keeping a few stems in my office. I love the smell of it, as well as its persistence throughout the winter. Sweet Everlasting indeed.

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