Nicotine And Old Roses

Wilf shows Jerry his roses

Wilf shows Jerry his roses

Nicotine soap and old roses have something in common – they’re fashion victims.

Tobacco is related to eggplant, tomato, capsicum, pituri bush and belladonna, they are members of the Solanaceae family.

Nicotine was replaced by modern pesticides because, unlike nicotine soap, new chemicals could be patented.Nicotine soap is a traditional, botanical pesticide, a naturally occurring toxic alkaloid derived derived from the tobacco plant (Nicotiana tabacum).
Many varieties of rose have disappeared from cultivation, forgotten during the relentless search for new, improved and novel rose varieties. Cants Roses, England’s oldest rose nursery, is where my great grandparents bought their roses. Many of the rose varieties they grew have since been dug out to make way for new subdivisions, or the latest new release. A big house sits on great grandad’s orchard and a block of flats now occupy his cut flower garden.

Wilf, my grandad (pictured) used nicotine soap. He made his own and sprayed a solution of nicotine to control caterpillars and sap-sucking pests, like aphid, on crops and flowers, like roses.

I used to use nicotine soap when, in the 1980’s, I ran a production nursery and, later in the 1990’s, when running a busy garden centre in South East London.

Only clean, well-presented and intact plants and flowers sell at a premium price – the purpose of the trade – so I made sure they were protected by nicotine from hungry pests until they reached the point of sale. I learnt then that chemical labels didn’t always tell the whole truth. Some plants dislike nicotine soap, most are unaffected. Nicotine soap solution defoliated a glasshouse filled with blooming Fuchsias a week before sale. A costly lesson. I wish the label had warned me!

Sprays using nicotine combined with soapy water were pretty common, but there were also nicotine vapourisers. Vapourisers were a Victorian invention, used to control glasshouse pests, like whitefly on tomato, until around the 1940’s-50’s. An early, effective, toxic form of aromatherapy for pampering Great Auntie Vera’s melons.

Nicotine is a plant-based (botanical) systemic pesticide. Nicotine plants use it to defend themselves against caterpillars. After spraying nicotine soap on foliage and stems, the nicotine is absorbed into the sap to spread throughout the plant via the vascular system. The withholding period for food plants was 21 days, which means that three weeks after applying nicotine it has degraded and become non-toxic. This allows you to pick and eat a food crop.

Big business patented synthetic ‘neo-nicotinoids’ and succeeded in eliminating nicotine from the marketplace. It was very good for their business, their corporate chemicals are widely used to treat seed, seedlings and established crops as well as home gardens. Neonicotinoid pesticides like Confidor – the only ‘neonic’ sold to home gardeners – enjoys a competition-free niche in the Australian domestic market.

We have discovered startling and disturbing things about how dangerous these allegedly ‘safe’ synthetic pesticides have become to global food security.

It’s established fact – old news – that neonicotinoid (‘neonic’) pesticides are linked to Colony Collapse Disorder of the honeybee. The toxin remains active for around a year after use and concentrates in pollen and nectar. It doesn’t mention this on the label.

Slightly more recent is the news that caterpillars contaminated with neonicotinoid pesticide are killing young birds. Several species of bird are experiencing significant declines in population. As insect eating bird populations decline, populations of pest insects rise.

The latest bad news about neonicotinoids is that pollinators visiting flowers with pollen and nectar contaminated by neonicotinoids become as addicted to these poisons. Just as smokers become addicted to nicotine inhaled by smoking.

It’s a strange world where caterpillars are becoming poison bird bait, and bees are becoming suicide junkies.

It’s hard for some gardeners to kick the habit of using systemic pesticides, like Confidor. Many are unaware that neonicotinoids are known for causing colony collapse disorder of honeybees and widespread killing of insectivorous birds. Spread the word.

The latest news about Confidor confirms that it is the 21st century’s equivalent of DDT, and that honeybees and other pollinators become addicted to pollen and nectar poisoned by Confidor. It’s somewhat ironic that a synthetic poison that eliminated nicotine, known for its addictive qualities for smokers, is proving as addictive to beneficial insects that guarantee human food security.

Gardeners like Wilf used to make their own alternative in the days when people had less money to spend on poisons and there was an abundance of honeybees and other pollinators. As mentioned, chemical companies persuaded governments to outlaw home made garden remedies, including nicotine soap. Making competition illegal is a common method corporations employ to increase their share of the free market.

Confidor concentrates itself in pollen and nectar which is why it harms pollinators, like the honeybee. Nicotine does not end up concentrated in the pollen or nectar of sprayed plants.

Birds that consume contaminated insects, or feed contaminated insects to their young are also poisoned. Research indicates Confidor does not break down and it ends up in waterways. Bayer’s position disagrees with this kind of this research, and they encourage continued use of neonicotinoids.

On the other hand, nicotine breaks down in three weeks, and while I used to use it on crops, I now advise against using it on food crops. Since nicotine is systemic, beneficial insects, like pest-controlling wasps, can be killed by consuming contaminated prey.

It is illegal for Australians to make their own nicotine soap (although it hasn’t always been), so don’t make it. Wilf, my grandfather, made his own long before chemical companies insisted that governments legislate to make them richer.

It is also illegal for Australians to grow their own tobacco (Commonwealth Consolidated Acts, Excise Act 1901, Section 28), although it self-seeds freely in building sites around Sydney’s Inner West. Birds eat the seed.

Nicotine soap is not organic-approved. Personally, I see no reason why this should be the case. Nicotine is a natural plant extract, just like pyrethrum.

So don’t do what Wilf did. Making your own nicotine soap is now illegal, and this is just for the record. So we don’t uninvent it.

Wilf soaked 100g rolling tobacco for one week in one litre of water.

He added two dessertspoonfuls of washing up liquid (or liquid soap) into a bottle with a re-sealable lid.

He strained the nicotine liquid into the bottle.

This is what Wilf called ‘concentrated nicotine soap’.

Wilf stored the concentrate in a securely locked cupboard in a cool space away from children (like me), pets and sunshine (which degrades the nicotine). In spring he made a batch to last his roses through summer.

The concentrate stores for around three months, but you wouldn’t do that, because it’s illegal.

To use – which would be illegal – Wilf added 2 dessertspoonfuls (2 x 12ml) concentrate per litre of water, eg 24ml per litre.

One litre of nicotine soap concentrate could make 41 litres spray. At today’s prices, a local tobacconist advises 100g tobacco would cost around $50. According to the Bunnings website (2013), a pack of Confidor makes 25 litres (a pack contains 5 sachets, each making 5 litres spray). This costs $18.98. So, apart from being illegal, Wilf’s alternative isn’t as thrifty as once it was.

The big difference today is that Confidor is legal, it hangs around in plants, pollutes waterways, promotes colony collapse disorder, kills birds, and threatens food security.

Now for the old roses. These are Wills’ cigarette cards from 1912. They show many of the old rose cultivars that would have been familiar to Wilf and my great grandparents. Several were planted by Wilf in our London garden. I grew up with them until our house was sold in the 1990’s.

Few Edwardian nursery and garden catalogues would have contained as many colour illustrations as this set of cigarette cards. Rather like making your own nicotine soap (which is illegal), manufacturing cigarette cards and many of these once popular rose cultivars have all fallen victim to changing fashion. In this instance, a positive fashion. Here’s a quaint souvenir of nicotine addiction.

Jerry Coleby-Williams

22nd June 2013
Updated July 2015