Pituri: The Original Aussie Chew
The natural flora of Australia has several plants containing nicotine that have been employed by indigenous peoples for centuries. The Duboisia hopwoodii, most used, has an elevated nicotine level of 8% that is much greater than most manufactured tobacco products. This particular genus is quite common in south and western Australia and appears between June and November. The plant stands between one and three meters in height, with long narrow leaves and white, purple throated, bell-shaped flowers that produce purple-black berries. The bush is harvested and commonly made into a product called pituri. This concoction was prepared by native peoples by harvesting the shrub, heating the leaves and stems in primitive sand ovens then mixing wood ash to help the absorption of nicotine when chewed or applied to the skin.
Knowledge about the preparation of pituri had a sacred and ritualistic significance as well as a commercial purpose. The tobacco was stored in woven pouches for transportation and was used as a gold standard for indigenous trading. Pituri was also a part of bonding among the aboriginal Australian, as it served as a social lubricant because of the mood enhancing effects. Pituri also served as an appetite suppressor and provided sustenance on long journeys and might also be used, in large quantities, as a painkiller. This commodity would remain an important social and trading product until the advent of the 20th century when European settlements placed constraints on production and the traditional methods of preparation were lost.
Whether native Australians or native South Americans were the first to use nicotine is unknown however both cultures benefited from a variety of the Solanaceae family. Despite its cultural significance, the use of pituri declined in the 20th century because of the introduction of commercial tobacco products, which replaced it as the preferred form of chewing tobacco. Today, pituri is relatively uncommon, but its cultural significance has not been lost, and it continues to be remembered as an important part of Indigenous Australian heritage.