Sunday, January 5, 2014

What’s in a name? Nicotine

Jean Nicot
The two principal strains of tobacco are named Nicotiana tabacum and Nicotiana rusticaNicotiana tabacum, which is air-cured, is the primary variety of tobacco used in the production of premium cigars.  Both varieties of tobacco bear the taxonomic prefix of Nicotiana.  What is the origin of that name?

Carl Linnaeus, the “Father of Modern Taxonomy”, sorted and grouped species, both plant and animal, into logical arrangements that gave clarity to their relationship, origin, and combinations.  Linnaeus had a significant task before him of naming and categorizing tens of thousands of species.  So, clearly, being a logical and efficient scientist, he often relied on naming species after the individual who first discovered and described it, or whomever was prominently known to be associated with the species.

The species Nicotiana tabacum was named after Frenchman Jean Nicot.  But how did Nicot become associated with this plant?  Well, in 1559, Jean Nicot was sent as a diplomat from France to Portugal to negotiate the marriage of Princess Marguerite de Valois of France to King Sebastian of Portugal, like you do.  The Princess was a lofty six years old and the King was a respectable five years of age.  Nicot succeeded at his task on this, what we would now consider rather absurd, mission.  While in Portugal he was exposed to a great little product that we now know as tobacco.

Nicot returned to France with tobacco, introduced its uses, both medicinal and relaxation oriented, to the people, who embraced it heartily, and Nicot became a relative folk hero for the magnificent souvenir from his Portuguese business trip.

Linnaeus was well aware of Jean Nicot having brought this plant species back to France and therefore branded it with his name.  Nicot later lent his name to the chemical Nicotine when it was isolated, described, and named by chemists, but his initial worldwide claim to fame was the magnificent tobacco plant which we all know and love.  Now, many others played active roles in the introduction of tobacco to Europe, but Jean Nicot will forever be memorialized for sharing his name with this glorious bit of flora.

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