Each year the National Garden Bureau selects one flowering plant to showcase based on its desirable characteristics. To be considered, the plant must be easily grown from seed, widely adaptable, genetically diverse and versatile as an ornamental plant. This year’s choice is Nitcotiana, or flowering tobacco.
Nicotiana is a flowering annual that fills the summer garden with brightly colored, trumpet-shaped blooms that attract butterflies and hummingbirds. The blossoms open at the end with a five-pointed, star-shaped flower that come in shades of red, pink, purple, green and yellow. Older Nicotiana species are valued for their impressive stature and sweetly-scented flowers that open in early evening. Newer hybrids offer smaller, more compact plants with abundant flowers that bloom throughout the summer.
The genus Nicotiana belongs to the large and diverse Solanaceae, or Nightshade family which includes many important edible and ornamental plants. Its closest ornamental relative is the petunia and it is also related to tomatoes, peppers, eggplants and potatoes. The genus name was designated by Linnaeus in 1753 to honor Frenchman Jean Nicot, ambassador to Portugal from 1559-1561 who brought powdered tobacco to France to cure the Queen’s son of migraine headaches. Many Nicotiana species names refer to a characteristic of the plant. For example, Nicotiana alata (the species to which many modern cultivars belong) gets its name from the Latin alata, meaning “winged”, for the winged petioles of the leaves. It is native to tropical South America.
The history of flowering tobacco is overshadowed by the well-documented travels of smoking tobacco (Nicotiana tabacum) from the New World to cultures around the globe. Nicotiana alata was introduced into garden cultivation in the United States and England in the early 1800’s where it was prized for its white, highly-scented flowers that opened at night. In Victorian times another species of nicotiana (Nicotiana sylvestris) was planted along walkways and paths so that those strolling by could enjoy the sweet fragrance of its flowers.
Early 20th century garden writer Louise Beebe Wilder described nicotiana as a “poor figure by day ... but with thecoming of the night the long creamy tubes freshen and expand and give forth their rich perfume and we are then glad we have so much of it...” The poet Millay wrote “Where at dusk the dumb white nicotine awakes and utters her fragrance in a garden sleeping.”
It appears that nicotiana fell out of favor with many gardeners because older cultivars produced tall plants reaching up to 5 feet in height which often needed to be staked or supported to keep them looking nice in the garden. Newer hybrids have been developed to stay around 12 to 18 inches tall making them much more versatile in the garden.
The semi-dwarf ‘Nicki’ series is only 16 to 18 inches tall and produces red, white, rose or lime green flowers. In 1979, ‘Nicki Red’ was the first nicotiana to win an All-America Selections® award and offered gardeners shorter, uniform height and good weather tolerance in addition to plants that bloomed from spring to fall.
Even shorter is the ‘Saratoga’ series which features compact plants only 10 to 12 inches tall. ‘Saratoga’ blooms early, has a light evening scent, and is available in seven different colors and two mixtures including lime green, deep rose, white, pink and a purple bicolor.
‘Tinkerbell’ (Nicotiana x hybrida) is another ornamental tobacco that appeals to the gardener looking for something very different. The dusky rose petals face outward from long green trumpets for a unique color combination. In the center of each flower is the remarkable blue pollen. The medium-sized plants grow to 3 feet and bloom throughout the summer.
Many of the new garden hybrids come from the group Nicotiana x sanderae including the 2006 All-America Selections® Award winning ‘Perfume Deep Purple.’ Its beautiful, 2-inch long, deep purple flowers hold their color well and give off a nice light fragrance in the evening. This medium-sized plant reaches about 20 inches tall and up to 18 inches wide.
The ‘Domino’ series is an intermediatesized nicotiana available in 13 colors with upward facing flowers in red, white, crimson pink, lime green, and bicolors with white center eyes or colored margins. Plants bloom early and reach a mature height of 12 to 18 inches.
‘Avalon Bright Pink’ won both the 2001 All-America Selections® award and the European Fleuroselect Gold Medal for its attractive bright pastel pink flowers that stand out in the garden. The very dwarf plants reach a mature height of only 10 inches and spread up to 12 inches making them ideal for borders and containers.
The always-popular ‘Sensation Mix’ is a dependable variety with fragrant flowers in shades of pink, red, and white that stay open all day into the evening. Taller than many of the hybrids, this variety reaches 2.5 to 3 feet tall.
Nicotiana grows best in full sun in average, well-drained soil but will tolerate light shade. Plants are easy to start from seed, but the very tiny size of the seed makes seedling production a bit challenging. Most gardeners opt for started transplants readily available from lawn and garden retailers. Select healthy, compact plants with green leaves. Avoid plants that show signs of yellowing which may indicate a problem with the roots or nutrition problem.
Nicotiana should not be planted outdoors until after the danger of frost has passed. The mature size of the plant determines the correct spacing. Allow 6-12 inches between the shorter nicotiana hybrids and 18-30 inches for tall cultivars.
Nicotiana has been developed to require minimal care but it perform s best with regular watering throughout the growing season. Plants growing in containers will appreciate fertilizing with a balanced, water-soluble fertilizer applied at regular intervals. Nicotiana is self-cleaning and does not need to have the old flowers removed in order for new flowers to form.
Newer hybrids of nicotiana are relatively free of insect and disease problems. Aphids and spider mites like to settle on the sticky glands of the plants and tobacco mosaic virus and powdery mildew have been known to attack its foliage. Other diseases such as stem and root rots are rarely serious and can be controlled by proper site selection and planting.
Nicotiana is underused in modern gardens. The new hybrids offer more compact plants that fit into smaller garden beds and grow well in containers. Their flowers stay open during the day and some even have the pleasant fragrance that many gardeners associate with the older varieties. Available in a wide color range hybrid nicotiana will complement any garden design and color pallet. Its easy care is perfect for today’s busy lifestyle.
For those who like more intense fragrance, the older, heirloom types are a must even though they require a bit more care. Plant scented types near a window or door so their fragrance can be enjoyed on a warm summer evening. Nicotiana flowers can be cut and used indoors; the strongly-scented types can perfume a room. Whether you desire nicotiana for its pleasing scent, its colorful blossoms, or its ability to attract butterflies and hummingbirds, growing nicotiana is a great way to satisfy your flower garden cravings.
Special note: A close relative of smoking tobacco and a member of the Nightshade family, nicotiana plants contain nicotine and should be considered poisonous. No part of the plant should be ingested by people or animals.
Credit: National Garden Bureau
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REVISED: November 8, 2012