Although mostly associated with cigarettes, the Nicotiana plant’s trumpet-shaped flowers and intoxicating nigh-time scent makes it a garden favorite. This beautiful flower has been adored since it was first introduced to our shores in the sixteenth century by french diplomat Jean Nicot.
Throughout the ages, tobacco smoking was seen as a hospitable pastime ritual. It was a means of sharing and welcoming visitors, celebrating friendships, marking alliances and cementing contracts. Today, Nicotiana is recognized for its delicate beauty, earning it a position alongside some of the most intriguing ornamental garden perennials.
All About Nicotiana
Ironically, Nicot believed the nicotine plant to be a heal-all remedy for a myriad of complaints. As time has passed, we now know the detrimental effects of smoking. We’re all aware of its connection with cancer and heart disease… but let’s delve into its decorative uses as an annual staple and garden sweetheart.
The Nicotiana genus contains over 60 species of heavily flowering, half-hardy plants and shrubs. An attractive and somewhat pendulous perennial, it’s often seen growing in sheltered spots, adorning garden borders and flower pots throughout the summer months.
Most species’ blooms stay closed in daytime hours, only opening fully in the evening. Passing nocturnal insects and moths are helplessly drawn to the its heavy nighttime fragrance, which in turn aids in the plants’ pollination.
Originally native to Brazil, Uruguay, Paraguay and Argentina, the Nicotiana genus is most commonly associated with the tobacco plant: Nicotiana tabacum. This is the species that’s currently grown commercially for use in the tobacco industry.
True to their name, plants in this genus do contain toxic nicotine, which helps to deter pests and insects from causing damage to tender, young plants. This can be a hazard to pets and horses, but when placed out of danger’s way there is far more to this diverse and delightful plant family than you may first think.
Nicotiana and Plant Adaptation
Nicotiana plant species have evolved over the years in their quest for pollination. By producing flowers of different shapes, colors and sizes, each plant can be pollinated by different insects. For example, heavily scented pale flowers with longer petal tubes are irresistible to the hawk moth.
Many varieties growing in the USA’s warmer States have bright red, almost unscented flowers with a shorter petal tube. These are perfectly suited to hummingbird pollination.
Nicotiana’s roots are where nicotine manufacturing takes place. This toxic substance is prevalent in both the leaves and the nectar, which can be poisonous to pollinating insects and it is a risk many are unwilling to take.
These high nicotine levels deter pests from eating the plants, but on the other hand, the toxic properties may also prevent pollination. As such, some species in this family have adapted to producing less nicotine and putting up with the pests. Others have taken a different route and become self-pollinating. These species have far higher nicotine levels in their leaves than species relying on pollinators.
Choose insect-pollinated varieties with fewer toxic properties. This will help you retain a harmonious wildlife garden.
Let’s take a look.
My Favorite Nicotiana Plant Varieties
Also referred to as the jasmine tobacco plant due to its sweet scent, this 3-foot-tall, half-hardy perennial has oblong shaped leaves and an erect branching form. From June to September clusters of 3 inches long, white tubular sweet-scented flowers will continue to bloom for the whole summer.
The most popular variety of the N .alata species is the compact “Sensation Mixed” type. At only 3 feet tall, this beauty has a bushy form, and produces a mix of coloured flowers. These blooms range from white to cream, pink to crimson, and a lovely lemon yellow. The flowers on this variety also open in the daytime, which makes it a good summer bedding choice for guaranteed colour. Suitable for growing in zones 8 to 10.
The Nicotiana alata “Lime Green” is (as you might have guessed) the green-flowered variety. At full maturity it will grow to around 2.5 feet, with each stem carrying numerous tubular lime green flowers.
A probable hybrid of the N. alata x N. langsdorffii is the Nicotiana alata “Tinkerbell” which will grow to around 4 to 5 feet tall with striking apple green and oxblood red flowers.
The outer and inner flower trumpets are green with deep red petals and periwinkle blue stamens. As you can imagine, this is a strikingly elegant, tender perennial. A highly scented hybrid variety with blooms opening in the evening, and throughout the dark hours to magnetize nocturnal moths for pollination.
A half-hardy biennial suitable for use in zones 9 to 10, it grows to a towering 5 feet tall. Also known as the woodland tobacco plant. It’s a stylish statement plant with hardy, stout stems and rich green, 12-inch oblong leaves. Long, white, tubular flower clusters dangle elegantly in panicles and omit a sweet scent. Plant these in a semi-shaded site, as their 4-inch-long flowers close when planted in full sun.
This green-flowered Nicotiana variety is known as Langdorff’s tobacco plant. It’s a robust half-hardy annual with oval leaves that grows to around 4 feet tall. Panicles of nodding, highly scented apple-green pendulous flowers make it ideal for growing as a backdrop for bolder colored blooms.
As its name suggests, this Nicotiana variety produces flowers that change colour with age. An upright, quite bushy annual, it grows to around 6 feet tall in maturity. Large oval leaves form a basal rosette from which branching stems grow, topped with clouds of white, unscented, tubular flowers.
When the plant matures, flowers darken to deep pink contrasting shades and hang like a candelabra. This variety—unlike the scented versions—is pollinated by hummingbirds. Suitable as a perennial in zones 9 to 11, but mostly grown as an annual.
Also known as the night-flowering tobacco plant, N. noctiflora is a smaller variety, growing to just 2 feet tall. Some people regard as having the best nighttime scent of all the Nicotiana varieties. Long, thin stems rise from a basal rosette, producing an abundance of delicate, tubular white flower panicles from summer through to autumn. These perform best when planted in a cool, semi-shaded position.
Nicotiana x sanderae
A more compact and bushy form than that of its cousins, use it as a bedding plant to guarantee a colorful display throughout the summer months. Growing to just 15 inches in height, this is a newer hybrid of the “Domino Series”. It’s more weatherproof than the straight old-fashioned varieties.
Nicotiana x sanderae has a colorful mixture of pretty tubular flower heads sat above mid green ovate leaves. These brightly colored flowers tilt upwards towards the light, forming dense clusters on erect stems. Unusually, the lightly scented flowers stay open throughout the daylight hours. In short, a lovely, hardier mixed variety perfect for smaller spaces.
Planting your Nicotiana Plant
Planting from Seed
It’s relatively easy to grow these plants from seed. Start them under glass from late February to late March. Use a nice fine compost, moisten it lightly, and sprinkle your seed on the surface of the seed tray. Then place in a greenhouse or propagator and wait for your seedlings to appear. Keep the temperature at about 18 degrees C/64 degrees F.
Once your seedlings are strong enough, gently prick them out into larger pots and let them grow on. Afterwards, place the 4-inch seedlings in a cold frame to harden off, then plant your seedlings out after all frost risk has passed.
Preferred Soil Type and Spacing
Choose rich, well-drained soil in a part-sunny and sheltered spot. Stake larger varieties if planted on a more exposed site.
Nicotiana plants come in many different varieties and sizes, so ensure thatlarger varieties have enough space to mature. Allow around 2.5 to 3 feet between the taller, more robust plants, and 12 inches for smaller varieties.
Where Not to Plant
Nicotianas are members of the Solanaceae family: nightshades. Their relatives include veggie plot favorites such as tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants. I recommend planting your Nicotiana plants far away from other nightshades, as the dreadful tobacco mosaic virus can transfer between plants and wipe out your entire crop.
Water and Feed Requirements
Make sure seedlings don’t dry out too much, and water as needed.
Feed your plants with a good multi-purpose liquid fertilizer once every 3 weeks to a month throughout the growing season. Not only will this ensure sufficient strength and root growth, but most importantly your flowers will arrive in abundance and continue to bloom throughout the summer. In addition, remember to dead-head your flowers: this too will promote further flowering.
Plant Pests and Disease
The tobacco mosaic virus mentioned earlier manifests as leaf mottling and discoloration. This can infect all members of the Solanacaea family, as well as cucumbers and certain ornamental flowering plants. Sap-sucking insects such as aphids, thrips, and white flies transmit it, and it causes stunted plant growth. Therefore, it’s important to remove and destroy any diseased plants as there are no alternative chemical controls.
Other critters to watch out for are aphids, leafhoppers, and white flies. Choose a suitable insecticide from your local garden center to deal with these.