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I am currently writing a story where natives are discovered in a jungle smoking a plant that depending on the variety will release different colored smoke when burned. The visuals in this story are very important to the plot.

The question : How do I add pigments to the native plants that allow them to inhale different colored smoke without any serious* health effects.

*by serious I mean any other effects beside the detrimental effects of smoking itself

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  • $\begingroup$ The back reading for this was interesting to me. I found many youtube videos showing vivid smoke bombs made with crayons. All those colors come from chemistry dye tech developed in the early 1900s. But what about a natural substance that produces colored smoke? I came up empty. $\endgroup$ – Willk May 14 '17 at 15:09
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Well, any element (or, indeed, any molecule) will emit a characteristic pattern of spectral lines when heated, so colored flames are pretty easy to do. Sodium, for instance, gives a bright orange flame, as seen on the left side of this page.

Colored smoke is more difficult, since the same reactions responsible for combustion also tend to destroy organic pigments. However, this Wikipedia page lists several pigments that are heat-stable enough to work. Most of them are at least somewhat toxic, but Disperse Red 9, Disperse Red 11, Solvent Red 27, Solvent Yellow 16, Solvent Yellow 56, Solvent Blue 35, Solvent Blue 36, Solvent Blue 5, and Solvent Violet 13 are not (or, at least, their Wikipedia pages say nothing about toxicity). So if you want to have a plant that burns with colored smoke, those are probably your best bets.

Also note that compounds that are already fully oxidized can't be oxidized further. Most metal oxides, however, have fairly dull colors. Iron (III) oxide, for instance, is kind of a reddish brown (rust-colored... because it's rust). However, in order for a material to have visibly rust-colored smoke, whatever's burning must have quite a lot of iron in it, which isn't likely to happen in an organic plant.

In any case, here's Wikipedia's list of inorganic pigments, if you need more inspiration. Just stay away from the ones with toxic heavy metals.

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  • $\begingroup$ A cigarette is not going to get hot enough to get visible spectrum emission lines. Below 1000 K you won't get any visible light, and a cigarette just won't get that hot. $\endgroup$ – kingledion May 14 '17 at 3:44
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    $\begingroup$ Let's be entirely honest - Smoking stuff generally has had all sorts of toxins in it. If it's only slightly toxic, it'll be fine. $\endgroup$ – Andon May 14 '17 at 3:44
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You could mix in a pigment or dye after the combustion process has finished, so it doesn’t destroy the dye. Perhaps the hot gas or chemicals (cooler than burning but still hot) react with the pod walls or other material it is being drawn through. If you have a natrual hooka, the possibilities are wide open.

Or, the particle size can cause the color. Tobacco smoke is sometimes blue because the particles are smaller than the light wavelength and this causes scattering. Small nano-sized particles of pigment can be different colors than the bulk because of the limited ways electron density waves can “ring” on the surface.

nanoparticles

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Any colour dye should work

Flares, smoke bombs and other modern coloured smoke creating objects all use different coloured dyes.

There are even a few recipies (and more instructions) around the web instructing you on how to create your own smoke bombs. Either of the links provided mention a few different options - but these are manufactured compounds.

All of the dyes used are organic compounds so it wouldn't be too much of a stretch to believe the plants on your world could do something similar. You would end up with very brightly coloured leaves which would indicate what colour smoke you would get.

Any option you choose, however, will have to create a lot of smoke for the effect to be noticeable...and so will be more unhealthy than normal, less dense, smoke.

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