That legendary everlasting plant called rabbit tobacco
By Tom Poland
She smoked it as a kid. Said she smoked grapevines, too, but it was Pseudognaphalium obtusifolium, one of the everlastings, she talked about most. She and her brothers and sisters smoked rabbit tobacco. She was my mom, and Depression-era kids had to get their kicks somehow. Why not rabbit tobacco? Back in her day, few country folk had heard of marijuana. I’m sure smoking rabbit tobacco sounded exotic and daring to kids of the 1930s. Doing so made for a rite of passage. In the rush to shed childhood and act grown-up, kids smoked this herb that stands tall in folklore. As a boy, tales of smoking rabbit tobacco fired up my imagination. Back then I knew nothing of rolling papers such as Zig-Zag or hemp but I could imagine wisps of smoke rising from a corncob pipe. It sounded bold. It seemed mysterious. I wanted to smoke it too, but I never did, and I’m glad I didn’t. The experience had to be foul. I’ve never heard one soul say rabbit tobacco made for a fine smoke, and I know not one adult who made it a lifetime habit. Where might you find this legendary plant? Well, it shouldn’t be hard. Rabbit tobacco grows throughout the South. Seek out dry, sandy soil. Mom grew up in northern Lincoln County, Ga., and sure enough there’s a good bit of sandy soil up that way. How well I remember her childhood home’s flat, sandy front yard. When mom and her sisters were kids, their Saturday task was to sweep it clean with dogwood limbs. Maybe after a morning of yard sweeping, they took a clandestine smoke break. “Let’s sneak over behind the barn and take a few hits of this rabbit tobacco.” (Insert sound of coughing here.) As Bill Murray said in “Caddyshack,” “It’s a little harsh.” Coughs aside, like many plants, rabbit tobacco is purported to have healing properties. The Cherokee mixed it with lard and made a salve, which they rubbed on their chest to relieve congestion and induce sweating. Sounds a bit like Vicks VapoRub doesn’t it. Some old-timers believed rabbit tobacco was good for respiratory ailments like asthma, coughs and colds. Why, I bet they rubbed broken glass over cuts to help them heal too. But I can’t criticize kids of the old days for experimenting a bit. I tried cooking banana peelings and eating them to get high once upon a time. Zero results. Will rabbit tobacco get you high? Negative. Mom’s annual herb has no nicotine nor does it have THC, that acronym for tetrahydrocannabinol, the crystalline compound that gets reefer heads high. No, smoking Pseudognaphalium obtusifolium won’t get you high, but it will take you closer to nature. Butterflies like it, and so do I. For me it provides a window through which I see how children of the 1930s amused themselves. Recently I was exploring the Henderson Preserve in Aiken County. Rabbit tobacco. There it was, standing tall and pretty in this preserve that protects a longleaf pine and scrub oak sandhills ecosystem. Easy to spot in the fall, its seed heads, for sure, will catch your eye. This native herb is a member of the family that includes sunflowers. No consensus explains how it got its name, but one angle I read makes sense. Its seed heads look much like a cottontail rabbit’s tail. One thing’s for sure, the rabbit-terbacky-smoking kids of yesteryear laid claim to “smoking weed” long before hippies did. They were smoking weed before smoking weed was cool.