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 rose. 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 but most are unaffected. I discovered nicotine soap solution defoliated a glasshouse filled with blooming fuchsias a week before sale. A costly lesson. I wish the label had warned me!
Nicotine is an alkaloid found in the leaves of Nicotiana rustica; in the tobacco plant, Nicotiana tabacum; pituri, Duboisia hopwoodii; as well as tomato, eggplant and potato. All are in the Solanaceae family. This botanical pesticide discourages grazing animals and pests.
Sprays using nicotine combined with soapy water were pretty common, but there were also nicotine vapourisers. Vapourisers (used for ‘vaping’, not burning tobacco) were a Victorian invention. They were 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. Auntie would have been startled to learn she vaped for food.
Nicotine is a botanical systemic pesticide leached out of tobacco leaves by water. This has a predictable active period of 21 days before it safely biodegrades. Tobacco plants use nicotine 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. I have never used nicotine soap on crops and do not advocate it for this purpose.
It’s a common misconception that using discarded cigarette ends and cigarette butts is an acceptable substitute for tobacco. It isn’t. Cigarette butts are the commonest form of litter. When tobacco is incinerated around 4,000 different toxins, including tar and many known carcinogens, are liberated and held in the filter. Fewer toxins are retained in cigarette ends lacking a filter because they have more freedom to pass into the lungs of the smoker. These pollutants are highly toxic to marine and freshwater fish. Used cigarette butts have no role to play in horticulture.
Big business patented synthetic neonicotinoids and lobbied until they eliminated nicotine from the horticultural marketplace. That strategy was very good for their profits and they found many ways to use their artificial poisons to treat seed, seedlings, established crops and plants in home gardens. Many farmers sign contracts with agribusiness which lock them into buying seed, fertiliser, pesticides, machinery and company expertise in their use. This vertically integrated business method creates politically powerful blocks of ‘farmers unions’ (industrial farmers) and their suppliers/ advisors (agribusiness) enabling them to determine agricultural policy at a national and international level (like the European Union). Just as the tobacco industry lied about ‘safe smoking’, agribusiness lies about their ‘safe’ synthetic alternatives to nicotine. Neonicotinoid pesticides like Confidor – the ‘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 neonicotinoids 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 on farms and in gardens rise.
Recent 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.
Most recently, research reveals that neonicotinoids are disrupting the ability of migratory birds to reach their destination. “The effects were really dramatic. We didn’t anticipate the acute toxicity, because the levels [of neonicotinoid] we gave them were so low,” said Prof Christy Morrissey, at the University of Saskatchewan in Canada, who was shocked by the results.
Food security alert: Neonicotinoid pesticides, like Confidor, are creating a dangerous world where caterpillars are becoming poison bird bait, where bees and migratory birds ‘forget’ how to navigate and bees and other pollinators are becoming suicide junkies.
It’s hard for some gardeners to kick the habit of using systemic pesticides, like Confidor. Some are wilfully ignorant of the fact that neonicotinoids are known for causing colony collapse disorder of honeybees and the 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 echoes the tobacco companies – they only use or agree with their own research findings and they encourage continued use of neonicotinoids.
While 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, although nicotine is a natural plant extract, just like pyrethrum. Certified organic nicotine soap is quite practical.
Just don’t do what Wilf did. Making your own nicotine soap is now illegal, and what follows is just a historical note for the record:
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). Made in spring, one batch lasted his roses through summer.
The concentrate stores for around three months, but you wouldn’t do that, because it’s illegal.
To use, Wilf added 2 dessertspoonfuls (2 x 12ml) concentrate per litre of water, eg 24ml per litre.
One litre of nicotine soap concentrate could make about 40 litres spray. At today’s prices, a local tobacconist advises 100g tobacco would cost around $146 (five years ago it cost $50). According to one website (2017), a retail 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 is that while 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 in 1938, including a climbing version of ‘Meg Merrilies’ (released in 1894). I grew up with the ‘Meg Merrilies’ and ‘Albertine’ grandad planted, and they were still growing strongly and flowering when our house was sold in the 1990’s.
Few Edwardian nursery and garden catalogues would have contained as many colour illustrations (if any) as this set of cigarette cards. Rather like home made nicotine soap (which is illegal), manufacturing cigarette cards and many of these once popular rose cultivars have all disappeared. Here’s a quaint souvenir of human nicotine addiction.
Jerry Coleby-Williams RHS, Dip. Hort. (Kew), NEBSM
Director, Seed Savers’ Network Inc.
Founder, Bellis, Brisbane’s award-winning sustainable house and garden
Patron, National Toxics Network Inc.
Patron, Householder’s Options to Protect the Environment Inc.
Former Executive Member, Queensland Conservation Council Inc.
22nd June 2013
Updated December 2017