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WHAT TOBACCO EATS

 
  Looking out across the emerald green of a tobacco farm, one sees tranquility. Yet, within the plants themselves, furious activity is taking place. This becomes evident when one returns to the same field a couple of days later, to see how fast the plants are climbing to the sun. It's obvious the plants are devouring nutrients at a rapid rate, to sustain such growth. This third article in our series of tobacco and cigar tutorials addresses the effects of nutrients on tobacco health and growth. Our guide is John Vogel, a 40-year tobacco genetic researcher, and now director of Tabacos de la Cordillera, a Costa Rican cigar company producing cigars from genetically pure pre-Castro Ancestral Cuban seed.™  
     
  Nitrogen is generally tobacco's most important nutritive element. Tobacco consumes more nitrogen than any other nutrient. More than half of all of the fertilizing mixture's cost goes to nitrogen carriers ... compounds that plants can break down to release and assimilate the element. Typical nitrogen carriers include urea, linseed meal, sunflower seed meal, nitrogen soda, ammonium nitrate, sulfate of ammonia, and manure. Such a wide variety of compounds providing nitrogen, and changes in composition and usable amounts in the soil, challenge growers to select the optimal carrier for each strain of tobacco. Nitrogen hunger in a tobacco plant is a major cause of low yield and poor quality, so growers must be knowledgeable about recognizing nitrogen shortage.  
     
  In plant cells, the protoplasm ... the semifluid living matter contained within the cell wall, which carries on all the cell's life functions ... is composed partly of nitrogen. It is in the makeup of plants' amino acids, and without nitrogen, there could be no proteins in the protoplasm, and no life. Lastly, chlorophyll, the organic chemical that makes plants green, contains nitrogen, and nitrogen deprivation will cause the leaves to fade and deteriorate.  
 
 

 


Preparing the growing fields with nutrients is still done the traditional way.

 

 


The necessary nutrients are pre-mixed in prescribed amounts to obtain a proper balance of minerals.

 

 


Back-breaking labor is what it takes to prepare each hole for a seedling with soil additives.

 

 


Large, vibrant green leaves with perfectly formed veins, free from disease and pests, are the reward for proper plant nutrition.

 
     
  In tobacco leaves, the proper amount, distribution, and balance of the various nitrogenous compounds is essential for satisfactory color, good grading, and other desirable qualities of the cigar tobacco. Too much nitrogen causes tobacco leaves to be undesirably dark. Too little yields harsh-smoking, inelas, poorly colored leaves. Importantly to us, nitrogen is a key element in nicotine, the alkaloid compound found only in tobacco gives it its peculiar and pleasure-giving properties.  
     
  Phosphorus necessary for formation of many protein substances in the plants, including nucleo-proteins in the embryotic cells. It is important in the reproductive organs of the cell, maintaining life itself. It is important in the development of proper root structure. The nitrogen - phosphorus ratio governs the possibility for the plant to mature ... especially true in the development of tobacco leaves. Phosphoric acid (P2O5) (TED: the digits 2 and 5 should be subscripts) are found in air-dried leaf, and helps the plant's digestion. The result of inadequate phosphorus is usually a midget tobacco plant. Phosphorus-deficient tobacco leaves are a too-dark green, almost olive color, very leathery and shiny. They narrow down at the base, becoming spear-shaped, instead of rectangular. (Rectangular leaves are genetically created, because their shape yields more usable leaf area from which the rollers can cut wrapper for large cigars. Thus, a spear-shaped leaf is a low-yield leaf.) (TED: photo "Leaf.jpg" is an example of a rectangular leaf.)  
     
  Potassium, the third crucial element, is a primary agent in the synthesis of carbohydrates and proteins. It also acts as a carrier for the absorption and translocation of other important nutrients. Potash, a potassium compound commonly used as a fertilizer, helps the plant resist disease. Potash-deprived plants suffer higher incidence of disease than healthy plants, with the same level of intensional experimental inoculation with the disease. Potash also makes the plant more drought-resistant; it makes cured tobacco leaves more pliable and "workable" by the handlers without damage; and, it is essential for proper burning qualities of tobacco ... potash-deficient tobacco burns with a flame like paper, rather than carrying the smoldering coal down the cigar's length. Native soil usually contains insufficient potassium, the rest coming from added nutrients. Potassium is derived from a wide variety of sources, such as carbonate of potash, sulfate of potash, nitrate of potash, traditional organic sources like tobacco stems and stalks from previous harvests, wood ash, and stable manure. The last must be used carefully, to prevent an excess application of chlorine, an abundant element found in it (see Chlorine, below).  
     
  Calcium is important, because depressed calcium levels stunt the growing tips of the leaves, and roots don't develop satisfactorily. Calcium is important for the cell membranes' (cell walls') health and integrity ... literally holding the cell together. Without this, the plant cannot grow. Calcium is useful in reducing the organic acidity in "sour" soils. By doing so, calcium regulates the levels of oxalic, citric, and malic acid, which are very important in tobacco. Calcium aids the migration of nitrogen carriers throughout the plant, e.g., from the lower to the upper leaves.  
     
  In finished cigars, calcium is responsible for producing light, tight ash. Dark gray, broken and flaky ash shows calcium deficiency. Likewise, the cigar's ability to hold an ash without dropping is a function of calcium balance. The ability of tobacco to utilize calcium depends, of course, on the available amount of calcium in the soil. It also is affected by the interference by other elements and compounds upon the plant's ability to absorb it or other nutrients. Tobacco requires calcium in quantieies second only to nitrogen: 400 to 600 pounds per acre. Calcium deficiency causes the plant to turn a dark green-brown, and the leaves curl undesirably. An excess of calcium must be avoided, however, as it can interfere with the plant's uptake of potash. Only experience can tell the grower wht is theright balance. Commonly-used calcium carriers are lime, dolomite, and gypsum.  
     
  Magnesium, another important ingredient, is vital in the formation of chlorophyll, the green "blood" of plants. Without sufficient magnesium, tobacco leaves lose their rich, deep emerald color. It also contributes to the generation of oils in tobacco, the oleoresins that contain the nicotine and flavor. A magnesium deficiency leads to dry, brittle, flavorless leaves; a magnesium-balanced plant displays that silky sheen we all recognize and admire. Magnesium is also important in the combustion of tobacco. A black ash indicates incomplete combustion of the carbon in the leaf, and is a sign of insufficient magnesium. We mentioned calcium's role in creating white, solid ash; magnesium can be substituted for calcium with the same desirable result, if other chemicals are in correct balance. Magnesium-deficient plants can cause some cracking and premature dropping of the ash, depending on the balance of other elements in tobacco's diet.  
  Boron, ususally plentiful in natural soil, is an essential element. It's contribution to the quality of tobacco is uncertain, but Vogel's studies at Consolidated Cigar's R & D department suggest that insufficient boron, even higher concentrations of calcium are unavailable to the plant, resulting in the burn and ash problems mentioned above.  
     
  Manganese is Another important element. In conjunction with magnesium, it aids in the formation of chlorophyl. It is a catalyst, stimulating the oxidation of plant tobacco's enymes, creating enzymatic changes in the ongoing process of plant metabolism. Even in relatively minute concentrations, Macanese is important in helping the plant to absorb and use the calcium, in the absorption and utilization of iron." (My Delete folder eagerly awaits your E-queries on this topic.) Deficiencies of manganese yield yellowish leaves and more pronounced vein, a condition called "manganese hunger."  
     
  Aluminum, another element present in all green plants, is essential during their entire growth cycle. To properly benefit tobacco, it must be added in the form of aluminum sulfate ... with care, as if used to excess, it can increase soil acidity too much.  
     
  Chlorine is not an essential growth nutrient ... plants can grow to full maturity in its complete absence. In fact, with more than 2% chlorine in the leaf dry weight, the tobacco will not even burn. Thus, growers must select the animal manure they use carefully, as you want chlorine's percentage of dry leaf weight to reach a point where it inhibit's tobacco from burning.  
     
  Sulfur is important in the development of plant protein; it also influences disease resistance.  
     
  Sodium is always found in traces in the leaves, although it is not an essential element, and researchers are not certain of its function. It does not have any harmful effects on tobacco.  
     
  Iron, found in very small amounts in tobacco leaves, is critical in the formation of chlorophyl. Its levels will determine leaf color ... usually it enhances the dark green color, but can also cause a reddish cast in some strains of tobacco. It is not as important as the other elements, but deficiency can cause the green leaves turn to yellow.  
     
  Beyond nutritional needs, tobacco is sensitive to acidity and basicity, expressed as "pH," an indication of the percentage of hydrogen detected. Acid soils damage tobacco's roots, causing root rot and black root rot. The ususal remedy for acid soils is the application of lime (calcium carbonate). Rainy climates tend to be acid, because the water washes away the calcium-bearing carbonate. Few fertilizers are neither acid nor basic, so the application of a specific fertilizer may require generous applications of others to balance them out. It is a learn-as-you-go exercise, as every tobacco has its own set of nutritional needs. It requires equal amounts of planning and luck ... the grower adjusts his nutrients "on the fly," observing the characteristics of his crop as it grows ... or doesn't grow ... and adjusting the n nutrients accordingly.  
     
  Vogel closes by saying, "By evaluating most cigars on the market, the uniformity of product obtained by genetical planning and proper nutrition is no longer there."  
     
  © Unastar, SA, 2005  
     
     
 

 
 
 

 
 

   

 



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