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"What opium is to the Chinaman, what whiskey is to the Scotchman, so is pituri to the western blackfellow. It is his very soul - without it he has no life almost"



Nicotine has been a major part of society for hundreds of years having a long history of use for smoking, chewing or snuff production. It is regarded as a social stigma of sorts in some circles and a fetish in others. People who disagreed with its usage in the seventeenth century expressed their feelings in verse:

Tobacco, that outlandish weed,
It spends the brain and spoils the seed.
It dulls the sprite, it dims the sight,
It robs a woman of her right.

(Heiser Jr., 1969)

Some species of Australian native plants have been widely used as a social drug by the Aborigines for thousands of years. There is little doubt that the Aborigines were using tobacco before it was introduced into Europe. The Aborigines could have possibly been the first in the world to become habituated to the drug (Latz, 1995). The tobacco (or pituri) was an important trading tool to barter axeheads, softwood shields and red ochre with surrounding tribes.

Nicotine and nor-nicotine alkaloids are found in the Solanaceae family, namely Nicotiana and Duboisia. Commercial tobacco is derived from American natives N.tabacum and N.rustica. Nicotiana has sixteen species that are endemic to Australia, whereas Duboisia has two species endemic. Duboisia is well known for its narcotic stimulants and is also used as a medicinal drug for a source of hyoscine. Toxicity of this plant can be fatal to cattle, horses, goats, sheep and camels. Some species can also be toxic to humans, for instance D.leichhardtii. However toxicity of both genera is highly variable according to locality, age and the part of the plant used. Nicotine can also be found in Isotoma petraea, Bacopa monniera, Eclipta prostrata and D.myoporoides.

Some of the native Australian species that have been used for tobacco purposes includes N.gossei, N.excelsior, N.benthamiana, and D.hopwoodii. N.excelsior (pulandu, balandu, pulanto, piturr) is restricted to ranges of north-western South Australia and southern Northern Territory where it grows in sheltered areas in rocky gullies and creeklines. N.gossei (ingulba, mingulba) is restricted to ranges of southern Northern Territory and north-western South Australia growing in pockets of fertile often sandy soil in shelter of rocks on upper slopes. This species is also considered to be the most potent species in Central Australia with leafs of this plant containing up to 1.1% of nicotine. N.benthamiana (muntju, tangungnu, tjuntiwari) on the other hand only contains 0.3% of nor-nicotine (figure 2). D.hopwoodii is a rounded shrub 4 metres tall and 3 metres wide (figure 1). It’s widespread in arid regions of Western Australia, southern Northern Territory, and South Australia extending to central-western Queensland and western New South Wales.

Figure 1: D.hopwoodii Figure 2: N.benthamiana

Leaves, flowers and flowering stalks are highly valued by the Aborigines as chewing tobacco with nicotine and nor-nicotine content being up to 25% of the dry weight of plant material. Pituri is the term used by the Aborigines for the ball of chewing tobacco.

Pituri is prepared by drying and powdering the leaves of the nicotine plant and mixing with ash from a variety of different specially selected species. It is rolled up into quids (balls) that are 6cm long and 1.5cm in diameter and then chewed. The mixing of the alkaloid ash with the plant material renders the alkaloids more available when chewed and ingested. When it is not chewed it is put behind the ear like bubblegum. The chewed tobacco is used as a token of friendship, of which it has taken on the significance of a social event.

Pituri is mixed with ash as the nicotine is liberated from the acids through the action of the alkaloids present in the ash. The ash promotes the rapid absorption of the nicotine into the bloodstream through the thin tissues of the lips and mouth and probably through the skin behind the ear (Latz, 1995). There are certain species that are used to manufacture the ash within the pituri. These include:

Acacia aneura Casuarina decaisneana
A.calcicola Eucalyptus coolabah
A.coriacea Grevillea stenobotrya
A.eutrophiolata G.striata
A.ligulata Senna artemisioides helmsii
A.pruinocarpa Ventilago viminalis
A.beauverdiana Hakea sp.

The initial effect of pituri is as a stimulant, later however the user begins to fell a bit heavy and finally sleepy. In small quantities the pituri can assuage hunger and enable long journeys to be undertaken without fatigue and with little food. It can also be used to excite the participants before fighting (Maiden, 1889).

The quids are sometimes mixed with threads of native flax (Psoralea spp.) to make the pituri stick together. If preferred plants are unavailable then small amounts of I.petrae are added to less popular Nicotiana leaves to give the quid extra strength. Aborigines also used the smoking of the burning leaves of D.hopwoodii as an anaesthetic, where the usage of the plant in the circumcision of boys during their initiation ceremonies was frequently practiced.

The future could possibly replace traditional tobacco with that of pituri. A product that is wholly Australian.


That smoking is a form of oral pleasure,

let there be no doubt.

(Sigmund Freud)



Bureau of Flora & Fauna (1982) Flora of Australia Vol.29 Australian Government Publishing Service. Canberra.

Heiser Jr.,C.B. (1969) Nightshades: the Paradoxical Plants Freeman & Comp. USA.

Lassak, E.V. & McCarthy, T. (1983) Australian Medicinal Plants Methem Australia Pty Ltd., Australia.

Latz,P (1995) Bushfires & Bushtucker. Aboriginal Plant Use in Central Australia IAD Press, Alice Springs.

Maiden, J.H. (1889) The Useful Native Plants of Australia Turner & Henderson. Sydney

Maiden, J.H. (1922) The Forest Flora of NSW Vol.7 Government Printer, Sydney.


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Copyright © 1998 The Australian National University

Author: Katie Littlejohn

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Date Last Modified: 29.10.98