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Heirloom Pesticides: Fighting Aphids the Old-Fashioned Way


I like to see what gardeners of the past used against pests. Partly it interests me because some of those older pests don’t even seem to be around today; partly I’m curious about  some of those old pesticides that are less toxic (and less expensive) than many of the pesticides we have today. But not always, as this story will reveal.

I recently got several books in the Present-Day Gardening series, which ran from about 1910 to about 1912 (for some reason, they stopped putting dates on the later books in the series). I enjoy these British books for the view they give of gardening a hundred years ago: an intimate look into the varieties and methods British authorities thought made good gardens.

In the Sweet Peas book, I saw my old friend, tobacco spray, recommended for green fly (a British term for aphid). Tobacco was the all-purpose pesticide of the 1800s and early 1900s; many still use it today. Novels from the time before smoking became a public evil talk about asking smokers to sit near the rose bushes, because the smoke helped defend the roses against various bugs and blights.

In Sweet Peas, the first line of defense is supposed to be picking off aphids, because “When this pest becomes comfortably established on the plants it will need all the grower’s patience and perseverance to exterminate it; but it should never be allowed to settle itself so firmly. If a close look-out is kept at all stages of growth, and every fly that is seen is promptly destroyed, the trouble will be lessened materially. It multiplies with extraordinary rapidity, and the descendants of one or two pairs become a crowded city in a week.”

Some things don’t change in a hundred years. Aphids still multiply like crazy, and for organic gardeners, hand-picking (more like squishing, really) is still a good first line of defense.

If this doesn’t work, Horace J. Wright says, then it’s time for snuff (finely powdered tobacco) or a tobacco spray made with paraffin. (Paraffin means kerosene, not the hard wax we call paraffin in the U.S.)

The recipe goes like this: soak two ounces of shag tobacco in one gallon of water. While I don’t use such large quantities, this is the basic recipe for a tobacco spray. Adding the kerosene/paraffin solution sounds a bit more complicated: you boil 4 ounces of soft soap in one pot, and 4 ounces of quassia  in another.

Quassia is a West Indian tree noted for its insecticidal properties, so here I have to wonder if maybe you couldn’t just leave the other items out of this recipe and still have success.  Interestingly, quassia protects beneficials such as bees and ladybugs, while it kills plant-predator bugs. Quassia is also used for human health; readers of Louisa May Alcott may remember that Rose, the heroine of one of her books, was given a quassia cup by her sailor/doctor uncle, returned from foreign climes. If I recall rightly, Rose was pale and thin from loss of appetite. In the West Indies, these cups were filled with water, which was allowed to sit until it leached some of the properties from the wood. Then the water was drunk for fevers and indigestion.

Okay, so now we’ve got the tobacco solution, the quassia solution, the soap solution. (As with many old recipes, you don’t get the exact amounts of water the quassia and soap are supposed to be cooked in.) You put them in a gallon and a half of water: “place on the fire, and when the whole lot is boiling furiously, remove the pot, put in a wineglass full of paraffin, and stir vigorously; the working in of the oil when the water is boiling hard will go far to ensure perfect amalgamation.” They wrote so nicely in those days. Perfect amalgamation. Sounds like an album title. Too bad you’d be inhaling poisonous kerosene fumes while making that perfect amalgamation.

The final solution is sprayed on in a mist, preferably after the sun has gone down.

Without the kerosene/paraffin, this spray would be nontoxic to plants and soil, at least. With the kerosene, it’s not only poisonous, but stinky. We often romanticize former gardens, but it’s not all good stewardship and nontoxicity with these old-time pesticides. It wasn’t in the U.S., either.  I asked my father once about the treatment he and his father gave the apple orchard every year.  “Arsenate of lead,” was his reply.


Sweet Peas, Horace J. Wright, J.C. and E.C. Jack,Present-Day Gardening Series, 1910

{ 25 comments… add one }

  • Mosaic Queen July 16, 2009, 4:16 pm

    Loving this post as aphids killed off my snail vine this last month. It is a very large vine and covers an entire wall to my entry, so not looking so good right now. This happens every year. It’s either aphids or white flies that attack this vine. It is a vigorous growing vine and comes back pretty quickly, especially in the heat, but I would like another solution than spraying with the hose as mostly suggested. (doesn’t work!)
    The tobacco solution sounds the easiest, but will it also affect the bees??
    Thank you for this most informative post!


  • jodi (bloomingwriter) July 16, 2009, 5:15 pm

    Because I don’t grow food crops, I don’t worry too much about the aphids. If they start to annoy me on Goldflame Honeysuckle or a couple of roses, I take the hose to them. But we have lots of trap plants around others might call them weeds, but I leave some of them to bring the aphids to them, and I think that helps a bit too. The other thing that I THINK is helpful is when I make a foliar feed using liquid seaweed. But I have no quantifiable proof of this, just a gut feeling.

  • michelle July 16, 2009, 5:20 pm

    Great info. I will have to start reading some of those older books. they sound so interesting.

  • tina July 16, 2009, 6:55 pm

    Those tobacco sprays are supposed to be very toxic and who knew? It is nice to hear of how things used to be done in gardening. Very interesting too.

  • Charlotte July 16, 2009, 7:45 pm

    Really interesting and informative post. Thanks

  • AnnF July 16, 2009, 8:57 pm

    Tobacco mosaic virus is likely the reason that most of the tobacco leaf concoctions went out??? There is a great book “The Truth About Garden Remedies: What Works, What Doesn’t, and Why” by Jeff Gillman. He tests out old theories, and with experimental evidence shows what really works.

    I think the best cure for aphids outdoors is a blast from the hose.

  • Sylvia (England) July 17, 2009, 12:25 am

    Pomona, lovely posts. I chuckled at the same words we use for different things and admire your research. I squash my aphids (black and green) or put up with them. Now slugs and snails are my big problem and it keeps raining here so it is getting worse. Good job there is always next year!

    Best wishes Sylvia (England)

  • Gail July 17, 2009, 5:02 am

    I really enjoyed this post! I have noticed that if I leave a few native weeds in the garden that all the aphids hang out there….if they move to a beloved plant I do spray them off. I have an ’45 edition of “What To Do In The Garden Each Month” that I bought on a lark! Nicotine spray was recommended. …and they suggested planting Kudzu for erosion control! Live and learn! gail

  • Mike Lieberman July 17, 2009, 5:24 am

    Great post. Love to see what was done back in the day.

    Luckily, I don’t have any aphid problems (that I’ve noticed), but have read that ladybugs or hot pepper spray can help deter them.

  • Pomona Belvedere July 17, 2009, 9:17 am

    Mosaic Queen, I envy you your snail vine, I’ve tried growing them to no avail. Good questions about whether tobacco spray affects bees: I haven’t found out yet. I’m guessing probably not, as Victorians used it pretty much wholesale on all their plants and I’d imagine they’d notice if they stopped being pollinated. But I don’t know for sure. I’ll make this the subject of another post when I find out.

    jodi, since I don’t grow food much either, I have the same cavalier attitude toward aphids. Interesting intuition about the kelp spray. Could be true: all organic bks say healthy plants have fewer pests. I’ll try this.

    michelle, I think you’ll have fun with the older garden books, they give a different perspective and yet some of the info is so fresh.

    tina, the tobacco spray by itself is toxic only to animals (including humans), but not to plants or soil. So don’t drink it while you make it…

    Charlotte, nice to have you by, looking forward to seeing your French garden photos.

    AnnF, thanks so much for reminding me about the Jeff Gillman book! When it first came out, I swore I’d get it, but life intervened and distracted me. I’m going to put this on my list right now. * I just did.

    Hello Sylvia, I enjoy the name changes as well, and my aphid control pretty much resembles yours. I did find a post on slugs and snails on a blog in the last couple of days only unfortunately cannot remember which blog. This site has a lot of info on how slugs reproduce and eat and what you might try for them: http://www.cirrusimage.com/mollusca_garden_slug.htm

    Gail, kudzu for erosion control! Oh my! That explains why half the country is engulfed in kudzu. I was amazed when I found the Japanese treasure the root as a starch source. Surely we should be able to manage some kind of exchange program. It is sobering to see the Great Ideas of yesterday and realize we may be perpetrating the same kinds of folly.

    Mike, I haven’t heard of pepper spray for aphids but that could help. And come to think of it, my deer-repellent spray has cayenne in it, maybe it cuts down on my aphids. My experience with ladybugs is they follow the nursery rhyme precept and fly away.

  • lostlandscape (James) July 17, 2009, 2:22 pm

    Ah the good old days! An ethnobotanically-oriented plant listing still sells various tobaccos that could be used as insecticidal teas, and it wasn’t that long ago that nicotine sulfate was available, packaged as Black Leaf 40, if I remember correctly. (The US EPA has decertified it for sale in this country.) Pyrethin in the form of chrysanthemum flower tea is another concoction that seems to have a following.

  • Monica the Garden Faerie July 19, 2009, 6:03 am

    I came across the tobacco spray remedy myself. You may be interested in these two applications: a fumigator that looks like a misting bottle (http://farm3.static.flickr.com/2423/3734513981_3071ca0d0d.jpg?v=0) and a train (http://farm3.static.flickr.com/2593/3734513993_e3aefc3fc4.jpg?v=0).

  • Helen at Toronto Gardens July 20, 2009, 5:40 pm

    For aphids, squishing is my first and favourite line of defense. Then zapping with water; equally satisfying. For spiny plants that make squishing painful (to me!), insecticidal soap is toxic enough.

    I did collect my neighbour’s cigar stubs for a while, thinking I’d use them to make nicotine spray for Really Bad Bugs. Then when I realized just how toxic nicotine is, and I turfed the lot out.

  • Helen at Toronto Gardens July 20, 2009, 5:41 pm

    There’s an extra “and” in there that needs pruning. Sorry.

  • Cyd July 21, 2009, 5:16 am

    Aphids got some of my lilies this year. I spray with the hose and if that doesn’t do it I mix a teaspoon of Ivory liguid dish soap and spray again. That kerosene must have been nasty.

  • Pomona Belvedere July 21, 2009, 8:47 am

    I’m glad to get everybody’s aphid-clearing techniques, if I get beyond squishing I’ll have plenty of material to work with! And I need to look up and see if nicotine sprays are toxic to beneficial insects; it does seem likely.

  • wayne July 21, 2009, 10:41 am

    my students were amused by this, thanks.

  • Meredith December 12, 2009, 9:42 am

    Fascinating! Your research and attention to detail is superb. I learned something new today :)

    I’m trying something really novel in my garden, the no-kill method. I went beyond just organic, so I don’t squish aphids, even. (Although I’m quite tempted sometimes.) And even so, that quassia sounds like a miracle plant…

    Never heard of the old-time pesticide arsenate of lead. Sounds like it would have scary side-effects. The newer ones, sold in stores still today, gave my farmer grandfather Parkinson’s disease as a parting gift.

  • Brandon April 21, 2010, 12:32 pm

    Tobacco spray? That sounds like it would be expensive. Have you tried any organic sprays like Safer Brand’s Tomato and Vegetable Insect Killer? I just came across the spray while searching for ways to get rid of aphids on my tomato plants. It’s economical and safe to use up to the day of harvest.
    Here’s the spray I’m talking about:

  • jen April 25, 2013, 11:25 am

    @Brandon, I live in southern Oregon and grow tobacco to help with pest. I have had some good results. Tobacco seeds are very cheap! I paid 5.00 for 100,000 seeds on ebay.

  • Shelly R. July 9, 2015, 12:29 pm

    Ban the EPA and most of our pest/insect problems will vanish. Don’t laugh, I used to work there and the agenda is not for the People. You unfortunately have all been taken for a ride. Hopefully a whistleblower surfaces.

  • Fernando October 24, 2015, 11:49 am

    You should spray them with your hose. It thrwos most of them off, and shreds their bodies. You can also buy ladybugs in little bags at the Home Depot. We did that, because all of our fruit trees looked like yours and the hosing and Dr. Brommers with strained garlic concoction was not helping so much… Just made me hungry for the Olive Garden. :)You spray your trees in the evening with a good spritz… then, take your ladybugs out there and let them go onto the tree. We did it with a flashlight (they use the light to see where they are going, so don’t let them out early morning…) In two days the ladybugs were double the size. We now have no aphids in the back yard, and tons of lovely ladybugs & their babies all over the trees, still… hope they stick around for the summer. :)I have also heard if you squish some of the aphids, the chemicals release should scare the aphids off… didn’t work for me, but it’s worth a try…Hope that helps.

  • Bhinda October 24, 2015, 12:08 pm

    These photos are beuafitul. Love the last one. I just got a little country getaway myself up to Ojai. Felt so good to get out of LA- I put a little travel post up. :) btw, I just launched my brand new blog, MOONSTRUCK EXPOSc9!I was formerly blogging on, I Live For It, where we followed each other.Hope you’ll come visit and follow along! I’m of course following you from moonstruck now. ;)Hope you’ve been well, babe!x. juliana

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