A popular pastime when my mom was growing up on an East Tennessee hillside farm was to go out and find some dry rabbit tobacco, crush it and roll it up in some brown paper from a poke (that’s a bag to you young folk) and smoke it. I don’t know how the tobacco tasted, but that paper must have been strong.
Rabbit tobacco (Gnaphalium obtusifolium) is a native plant that also goes by the name Sweet Everlasting. It is a small weed around 1-2 feet tall, and will catch your eye because the flowers, lower leaves and the stem appear white due to a covering of soft fuzz.
The leaves are narrow, 1-2 inches long and have no stem. The dull white flowers bloom in the fall and look like clusters of papery tubes, so they’re not what you’d call showy. But the whitish appearance of the entire plant does stand out and is easy to spot in weedy fields. Even when the plant is dead and dry it still appears similar to when it was alive, hence the name everlasting.
Smoking rabbit tobacco probably got its start from being used as a medicinal to treat a lot of ailments. The leaves and flowers (either chewed or in a tea) have been used for sore throats, pneumonia, colds, fevers, upset stomach, abdominal cramps, asthma, flu, coughs, rheumatism, bowel disorder, mouth ulcers and a nerve sedative. Juice squeeze out of the plant is considered an aphrodisiac. I have seen it as an ingredient in some store bought herbal teas.
Steve Roark is the area forester in Tazewell, Tennessee for the Tennessee Department of Agriculture, Forestry Division.