Whole Leaf Tobacco

Historic Colombian tobacco varieties from the 19th century


Jan 24, 2020
Reading old books on tobacco is fascinating. There are references to all kinds of tobacco varieties, processing methods, and lore that don't exist anywhere else. In reading through some of these older sources, particularly from the 1800's, I've come across numerous references to a handful of varieties in South America that were once considered among the best in the world.


One book from 1875 describes Colombia as "celebrated for the quality and varieties of its tobacco," stating that it had already been grown there commercially for over 250 years. Old books make common reference to Colombian "Varinas" or "Varinian" tobacco, which was the most popular of its day in Europe before the Virginia colony began growing 'Orinoco' and 'Sweet-Scented'. By the late 19th century, Colombia was still world-renowned for its high quality product. One central region for tobacco production was Ambalema, which experienced a centuries-long saga that brought it to the heights of cigar renown before it collapsed under its own corruption. At its height, 'Ambalema' tobacco was second only to Cuban leaf for cigar wrappers. Later studies in the 20th century found that 'Ambalema' was one of the most resistant strains of tobacco to mosaic virus.

Another variety of world renown was 'Girón', which more than any of variety of its day was used for cigars, and into at least the 1980's the Girón region produced what was considered the country's best tobacco.

Both 'Ambalema' and 'Girón', along with other very old varieties like 'Palmira', are available through the USDA. The cultivars are available from selections that were gathered in both Colombia and Venezuela. I would be interested to see if any of these varieties are still of the superior quality that they were famous for 200 years ago.

Girón from the Venezuela accession (the Colombian one does not have photos)

accessions, on the other hand, appear to have a wide variety of leaf morphology:


Having not seen references on FTT or more recent publications to these varieties, I wanted to post about them in the hopes that others might also be interested in reviving and trialing these cultivars. Moreover, if anyone has similarly researched other historic varieties that they've been able to track down and rescue from oblivion, I'd love to hear about it!


Staff member
May 25, 2011
near Blacksburg, VA
I've grown over 100 varieties of tobacco. @Knucklehead has grown a gazillion varieties. @FmGrowit has grown some fairly obscure ARS-GRIN accessions. @skychaser holds seed for well over 500 varieties, though he cannot possibly produce all of them in quantity. That takes a funded agency. And there are hundreds of well known varieties held in the seed banks of other countries, and not held by ARS-GRIN. But the combined experience of forum members represents considerably less than a fifth of the Nicotiana tabacum accessions held by ARS-GRIN. Most of the unusual varieties that I have grown were primitives or not particularly worth growing a second time. I'm sure there are still treasures out there.

It is indeed fun to read the 19th century books on tobacco. Home growers are often functioning at the level of 19th century technology, because of the limited scale of a home grow.

ARS-GRIN will no longer send tobacco seed to tobacco hobbyists. If you hold an academic position or university research position, then you might be able to cajole some seed from them.

I've noted elsewhere that many of the authors of tobacco books from the 19th century were armchair journalists, and wrote authoritatively about details that they themselves had never directly encountered or observed. Killebrew is a notable exception. Often, you will see the 19th century equivalent of copy-paste--for example in discussions of Latakia variety, history and techniques. [Even in Constantinides' excellent 1912 book on Turkish tobaccos, he muses about why the growers in Xanthi invariably snipped off the petiole from each leaf. Xanthi is sessile, not petiolate. So he apparently had never seen the leaf in its native growing regions, even though he wrote about it in detail.]

Prior to the general acceptance of Mendelian genetics by the wider, scientific community (early 20th century), tobacco varieties were always a mish-mosh of strains, even within the Vuelta Abajo and other renowned growing regions.