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By Christopher Nyerges

[Nyerges is the author of “Guide to Wild Foods,” “Foraging California,” “How to Survive Anywhere,” “Self-Sufficient Home,” and other books. He leads regular survival and wild food walks. He can be reached at www.SchoolofSelf-Reliance.com, or Box 41834, Eagle Rock, CA 90041.]

For the most part, I am not a smoker.  Clearly, smoking tobacco isn’t good for you! The real culprit in commercial cigarettes are the chemicals added to the tobacco and paper, things such as moisturizers, flavors, things to keep the cigarette burning, etc. etc.  There are anywhere from 70 to 250 such chemicals, depending on who you believe.  If the tobacco companies had to list all the ingredients on the label, there’d be no room on cigarette containers.

Growing and smoking your own tobacco, either that you grow or wild tobacco, is still not good, but it’s less bad.

Here in the West, there is a widespread introduced species of tobacco commonly known as Indian tobacco (Nicotiana glauca) or tree tobacco (it can grow up to 25 feet tall). (In fact, there are wild tobaccos throughout North America.)  We allow it to grow out back because its yellow tubular flowers attract hummingbirds.  This plant would kill you if you ate it, but it can be dried and smoked.  It is far more potent than commercially grown tobaccos, and in general I would not recommend driving your car and smoking this plant at the same time.  If the bureaucratic do-gooders ever outlawed tobacco, there’d still be no shortage of wild tobaccos around the country.

All that said, though I have smoked tobaccos in the past (commercial and wild), today I prefer to make my own non-nicotine smoking mixes for those times when I sit out back and think about important things.

My blend varies from season to season, depending on what wild leaves I have picked and dried.

I usually begin with dried manzanita leaves (Arcostaphylos sps.), which were used by American Indians of the Southwest in their smoking blends.  This smokes very well, though there is little taste or flavor.  The most commonly known variety is the kinnikinnik, or Arcostaphylos uva-ursi, which is not a bush or tree like the other manzanitas but is a trailing vine.  Regardless which variety I use, I let them air dry, and then crush them into small pieces. The manzanita leaves are all somewhat tough and leathery so it will be necessary to break them into small bits so they can smoke.  I have heard that the flavor of this particular leaf is improved a bit if it is aged, and if it is allowed to slightly ferment, in much the same way that one might age certain tobaccos.  However, I  have never taken the time to experiment with this, since the dried and crumbled leaves smoke quite well.

The blend will typically have some dried peppermint and/or white sage (Salvia apiana). This gives a sweet flavor to the smoke, somewhat like menthol in cigarettes.  Any of the sages and mints would do — even those growing in your garden.  This should be no more than 1/5 of your blend.

Horehound (Marrubium vulgare) is a European medicinal herb of the Mint Family that can now be found throughout most of North America and the world. It has a long history of use for treating coughs and sore throats when used as a hot tea or candy.  I learned that it can also be blended into your smoking mixes and there still may be some good effect from the horehound, even if you smoke it.  It is a true mint, after all, and it smokes well, though it doesn’t add that menthol-like quality to your smoking mix as do the other mints.

I sometimes add dried and pulverized willow bark (Salix sps.), usually red or arroyo willow.  This adds a pleasant flavor, and was apparently used in traditional American Indian smoking blends.  A tea from the willow bark has effects similar to aspirin, and can be drunk or applied to wounds to relieve pain.  In fact, the original aspirin came from the inner back of willows, which contains salicin.  We have heard some folks say that smoking the willow bark in their mixes also provides some pain-relieving qualities.  That’s not been my experience, but you can try it and see what you experience.

I often add the dried leaves of mullein.  Mullein (Verbascum thapsus) is now a common weed in the U.S. though it’s a European native.  Of the many virtues of mullein, it is good in a tea for breathing problems, even asthma.  Interestingly, mullein has long been smoked to improve the breathing passages.  If you’re going to smoke, you really ought to include mullein in your mix.  The large leaves of mullein have the texture of flannel.  I generally pick leaves from the first year growth.  Mullein lives for two years, and in the second year it sends up a tall flower spike and produces smaller leaves.  Mullein is common throughout the country in fields and along streams.

I  usually add a little bit of mugwort to my mix — no more than about 1/5 of the mix — since it produces a very pleasant aroma when burned.  Mugwort (Artemisia sps.) is found along streams and the dried leaves, rolled into a cigar shape, were used by early Native American in Southern California as punks for transporting coals.  When I collect mugwort for smoking, I typically just collect the leaves from the lower stalk of the plant that have dried on the plant.  On the other hand, if I am collecting the leaves for their medicinal values, I would collect the leaves green, clean them, and then dry them for storage.

There are other herbs that I sometimes add in various amounts.  I like the leaves of passionflower (Passiflora sps.), a somewhat common vining plants throughout much of the west, the south, Europe, Mexico, and even the Hawaiian islands.  The leaves have a sweet odor and don’t seem to irritate the throat or mouth.  Medicinally, the tea from passionflower is drunk in cases of insomnia or nervousness.  The flowers are used medicinally also, but I usually only smoke the leaves.

I also add a small amount of Damiana leaves to the blend which I buy from the health food store.  This is a plant which supposedly grows in the wild in northern Mexico and the Southwest, though I do not encounter it often.  It makes a delicious tea, and a very pleasant smoke.  Damiana leaves were also smoked by the ancient Aztecs.  I have long enjoyed the fragrance of the damiana tea, and it does create a pleasant aroma when smoked.

When I have it, I add a few pulverized pieces of sweetgrass braids to the smoking blend.

Yerba Santa (Eriodictyon sps.)  is a common southwestern herb found in dry and desert-like places.  It is very fragrant, and usually sticky.  There are several varieties, and all have a history of being used as a tea for breathing and bronchial problems.  It is sometimes added to smoking mixes for its fragrance, and apparently because some folks believe that the beneficial effects on the lungs and bronchial tract still carryover when you smoke it.

Interestingly, you’ll notice that many of the herbs I have listed are frequently used as the primary remedy for coughs, sore throats, asthmatic conditions, etc.  At the very least, there is the presumption that by smoking herbs that are generally beneficial to the throat and lungs, that you will be somewhat counteracting the harmful effects of the smoke.  Whether this has any real scientific basis is uncertain.

Coltsfoot is an herb commonly found along roadside ditches and wet areas in the eastern parts of the United States.  It is a two year plant, and the large first year leaves are the ones typically gathered for smoking.  Coltsfoot has been used as a smoke for at least a few centuries, and there is the belief that smoking it can actually be somewhat good for a sore throat.

You can make your own blends and determine what you like.

I don’t smoke a lot – I might sit out back maybe once a month or so and smoke my hand-made elder pipe.  I’m not addicted to it, like the  person who can’t stop chain smoking commercial cigarettes.  I simply likes to smoke occasionally, at special times, while thinking about a particular subject.

I am quick to reiterate that I am neither encouraging nor endorsing smoking of any sort.  I certainly do not advocate the use of regular commercial tobacco, since its use is related to a host of diseases. But perhaps the use of wild nicotine-free herbs can help you cut down on the harmful tobacco.   If you do choose to smoke, moderation is the key.

And if you’re one of those people who simply isn’t going to go out and collect your own herbs, then try the Store at www.SchoolofSelf-Reliance.com or send $12. to School of Self-Reliance, Box 41834, Eagle Rock, CA 90041.







Availability in wild


 How prepared


Flavor **




Aroma **


How used medicinally *




Common in wet areas in Eastern U.S.


Dry the first year leaves


Mild, bland




Mildly sweet


Tea for bronchial problems






Dry the leaves


Good, “herbal”




Very pleasant, like incense






Very common


Dry the leaves








Tea for coughs, sore throats




Common in wild and gardens


Dry the leaves






Mild, sweet


Many uses.  Good tea for digestion.




Widespread in west and southwest


Dry the leaves












Widespread along streams


Dry the leaves




Medium to harsh


Sweet, like incense


Many uses





Widespread in fields


Dry the first year leaves








Used as tea for asthma and breathing problems


Passionflower leaf


Widespread vine in west and south


Dry the leaves






Sweet; has been compared to marijuana


Used as tea; natural sedative




Widespread in gardens and in wild


Dry the leaves


Sweet, adds a menthol quality




Sweet, sagey, like incense


Many uses


Yerba santa


Widespread throughout the west


Dry the leaves


Somewhat sweet, “medicinal”


Medium to harsh


Fragrant smoke


Used as tea for coughs, breathing problems




Widespread along streams worldwide


Dry the young bark, shred it.


Bland, not noticeable






Used as tea for pain-reliever


*  For medicinal uses of herbs, see any of the books by herbalist Michael Moore.

** In general, Bland flavor and aroma indicates that there is no strongly identifiable flavor or odor, and that the herb blends well with other smoking herbs.






SMOKE-01: Angelo enjoys an herbal smoke.

SMOKE-02:  first year mullein rosette

SMOKE-03: Kinnikinnick,  the original Indian smoke.  PHOTO BY ALGIE AU

SMOKE-04:  Coltsfoot leaves, photographed in Virginia.  PHOTO BY HELEN NYERGES

SMOKE-05:  Christopher collecting coltsfoot leaves. PHOTO BY HELEN NYERGES

SMOKE-06  Peeling the bark from a willow branch

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