GGW Plant Pick of the Month: Nicotiana

– Posted in: Garden Plants

ds-n-sylvestris-drift1 

I gave up smoking years ago, but I’m not about to quit using tobacco. Flowering tobacco (Nicotiana spp.) that is, a family of plants—annuals for me, but many are hardy in Zone 7 or warmer– that have been enriching my garden for years. I’m not talking about those cute little garden-center hybrids. Breeders seeking richer colors and compact plants with more profuse flowers have realized their dreams, but paid dearly. Their success has come the expense of the fragrance, stature, and sheer exuberance that makes the parents of those hybrid offspring so alluring. The parents–the straight species Nicotianas–are still tops for wow-power. Just take a look at that drift of woodland tobacco (Nicotiana sylvestris) in Dennis Schrader’s Long Island, NY garden.Why they’re not more popular I just don’t know. Heck, they don’t even rate a decent common name.

Nicotianas certainly have a lot to offer. They add bold architectural presence to the border, and compliment virtually any setting, from tropical themes and foundation plantings to mixed and perennial borders. They excel at bridging gaps in young gardens, or filling holes left by spring-blooming, summer dormant plants such as spring bulbs or oriental poppies (Papaver orientalis). They can also serve as a quick hedge, or a stunning backdrop for smaller plants. 

My favorites, which, through an almost unbearable act of self control I shall limit to three, are also sizable; I don’t bother with any that won’t reach at least 3 feet in height. Most are tough enough to march right through light frosts, so they help carry the garden’s banner of beauty into late fall. They thrive in full sun or part shade and are so easy to introduce that all you need do is scatter seed in early spring, though I get a lot more bang for my buck by starting seed indoors 6-10 weeks before the last frost date. The seedlings are hungry little critters, and appreciate an occasional feeding of dilute fish emulsion.

new-nic-stairs-11Nicotianas are often noted for their scent. My favorite for fragrance is easily jasmine tobacco (Nicotiana alata). Scents are hard to describe, but the fragrance obviously recalls, to some, the sweet smell of jasmine, though I find it not quite that cloying. Many a summer night Birdboy, the Artiste and I sit outdoors, enchanted by the play of moonlight silvering jasmine tobacco’s snowstorm of white flowers, and bewitched by the blossoms’ fragrance. I like growing it in drifts of a dozen or more, with about a foot between each plant. More plants means more fragrance and the crowding accommodates Jasmine’s tobacco’s somewhat floppy habit by allowing each plant lean against its neighbors. That floppiness prompts me to stake at least few plants each season, a task best done early on so flowering stems grow upright.  Those pencil-thick stems can rise to 4 feet, and are capped with a chorus of trumpet-shaped flowers, each flaring to starlike tip. By late summer, plants become a virtual candelabras of flowering stems. I prefer the straight species, but several seed stains—whose names suggest their attributes—are available, including ‘Grandiflora’, ‘Fragrant Cloud’, and the diminutive ‘Dwarf White Bedder’, topping off at only 18 or so inches.

nicotiana-sylv1Perhaps better known is woodland tobacco (Nicotiana sylvestris). This plant is also intensely fragrant during the evening, but not so sweet as Jasmine tobacco. It has several other virtues as well. I’m always on the lookout for big-leaved plants that take full sun, and this Nicotiana provides an almost tropical touch, with dark green leaves reaching up to 2 feet in length and a foot across. This hefty plant reaches up to 6 feet in height and is crowned by clusters of pendent white flowers that look like a burst of fireworks. Though most references say this sturdy Nicotiana rarely needs staking, I’ve not found that to be the case, especially in sites exposed to wind. There’s no debating this though: these plants are dramatic enough to plant anywhere as lone specimens—perhaps accounting for the name of a popular woodland tobacco seed strain—‘Only the Lonely’. They’re great at filling unwanted “holes” in the garden picture, creating appealing backdrops, or as repeating elements at mid-border. If used freely, they add an air of maturity to a fledgling garden. Dark backgrounds bring out their best.

se-nic-1Fragrance is fine, but another Nicotiana species plays a more useful role in the colorist’s garden. N. langsdorfii, with broad, deep green leaves nearly a foot long and panicles of flowers the color of a Granny Smith apple, mingles well with almost any other plant and looks especially handsome with dark foliaged trees or shrubs like purple smoke bush or ninebark ‘Diablo’ (Physocarpus opulifolius ‘Diablo’). Companionable as it is, N. langsdorfii comes into its own as a moderator wherever colors clash. A single plant placed between the opposing forces of, say, a warm pink and a cool red, serves as a bridge between the disparate hues, blending them together in a harmonious whole. That chameleon quality makes this Nicotiana’s propensity to self-sow most welcome—no matter where it may rise, it looks great. These strangely sticky plants are reputedly able to reach heights of 5 feet, but they usually top off in my garden at about 3 feet. This plant looks best in clumps of three or as solitary specimens peppered about for continuity. Two other Nicotiana species bearing green flowers with a passing resemblance to N. langsdorfii, are native to the Andean foothills of Peru. N. knightiana and N. paniculata, each boast rounded, basketball-sized leaves that look dusted with silver and generous sprays of tubular green flowers more numerous and more delicate that N. langsdorfii’s. They look magnificent among blue spruce or trees and shrubs with burgundy toned foliage.

Steve Silk

Steve Silk

Steve Silk

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Adam Woodruff February 10, 2009, 10:58 am

Great post Steve! Nicotiana sylvestris is a staple in my garden designs. It can be counted on to self seed and fill in the gaps. Works well with grasses, Cannas, etc. I have worked with annual Nicotiana ‘Purfume Purple’ and ‘Saratoga Lime’. Purfume Purple was a reliable and colorful performer all season long. I was disappointed in ‘Saratoga Lime’.

Thanks Adam, I’ve yet to meet a Nicotiana I don’t like, and do appreciate the way they fill in. But I’m impatient. I want those flowers earlier. So any day now, I’ll be disappearing down into the basment to sow some seeds. You can never have too many nicotianas.–Steve

Nancy Bond February 10, 2009, 11:10 am

This really is a beautiful, multi-faceted plant and it looks stunning against that backdrop of darker foliage.

I take it you’re referring to that Nicotiana langsdorfii. You just gotta have a slew of those. They really pay the rent for their space.–Steve

Raquel at Cool Garden Things February 10, 2009, 3:32 pm

Enjoyable to read. Makes me want to get started with my spring planting…and include Nicotiana. Which I have never used in the garden before…hmmm…I will surely try some of the jasmine smelling allota variety this year next to the Gazebo. Thanks!

Enjoy, Raquel! And that’s a good notion to plant near where you’ll spend time in the evenings. The trouble may be forcing yourself to leave that fragrance and go back into the house.–Steve

Lisa at Greenbow February 10, 2009, 5:34 pm

I just love this plant. A friend of mine grows it every year. Every year I say I am going to but don’t get the plant or seeds in the ground. That first photo is enough to make anyone fall in love with it.

So is the fragrance, Lisa. But it is dramatic when planted in a large swath.–Steve

Gail February 10, 2009, 8:28 pm

I love this N sylvestris and wish someone would offer them in a nursery already started and ready to be planted out in my garden! Do you think it can be sowed directly into the garden?

You can definitely sow them direct. Prepare a nice soft bed by scratching the up the soil, then broadcast a little bit of seed. Seed is teeny, so maybe you want to mix it with sand–that helps you sow thinner since you’re broadcasting mostly sand, and it helps mark the spot. Don’t cover the seeds; they need light to germinate, which sould happen after a week or two. The little seedlings with their roundish, slightly fuzzy leaves really hug the ground for a while before they start up.–Steve

jodi (bloomingwriter) February 10, 2009, 11:39 pm

Nice to see a love song to nicotiana. I love N. langsdorfii because there’s something about green flowered plants that just delights me. And the white flowered species with their fragrance are just the best. My biggest problem with them is they’d like a little more heat than I can give them in my fog garden.

I can definitely sing a love song to Nicotiana. White species do smell most sweetly, and though the alata can look a bit bedraggled by day, it perks up when the sun goes down. Too bad about the lack of heat, they’d look great in the fog.–Steve

franniesorin February 11, 2009, 10:17 am

Steve-
Magnificent post! Boy, have you whet my appetite with Nicotiana alata. It sounds divine!
One of the great attributes of Nicotiana sylvestris is not only its height, fragrance and total compatibility with all other plants in a garden but I love the fact that it is such a rampant self seeder. As far as I’m concerned, this nicotiana can do no harm wherever it blooms! fran

Thanks Fran. Really, most off the more commonly grown species Nicotiana are extremely compatible with almost any companion plants. They look good anywhere.–Steve

Frances February 11, 2009, 7:58 pm

Hi Steve, what a good p. r. job you have done for this underutilized garden workhorse. I was given seeds for N. sylvestris this year and they are still little babies under the lights. I will give them the organic boost, thanks for that tip. And be prepared with the stakes too.
Frances

They are workhorses, and they are up to the task. Seedlings usually stay small until they get some heat, which then launches them skyward. You’re way ahead of CT if you’ve already started the seeds. It’s another month away for me. Getting ready though.–Steve

eliz February 12, 2009, 12:29 am

I love sylvestris, mutabalis, elata and the also-tall Bella. The Red Bedder is also fantastic. I grow them all and more.

I will say that the sylvestris is a bug MAGNET, and not in a good way. Little tiny black dots cover it later in the seaso, though you can spray them off, and it also takes a lot of deadheading.

I like N. mutabilis too, more, in fact, each time I grow it. Sounds as if you like the whole tribe as much as I do. I haven’t had a whole of of bug problems, just an ocassional white fly congregation. Since they are rarely seeen, and don’t detract much from the plant’s appearance, I usually don’t bother to battle them.–Steve

Pete Mazin February 12, 2009, 9:35 pm

Last year I had the most spectacular tobacco plant, which grew to almost 7′ and bloomed profusely. It was seed I had collected from an Orinoco or Iranian strain (or maybe a cross?). Anyway, I was pleased to see this long-overlooked plant getting the attention it deserves. It was one of the stand0uts in my garden.

Hmm, wonder what that could have been? Perhaps one of the species gorewn for its tobacco or for its leaves–here in Ct they grow lots of tobacco, and it is used exclusively for cigar wrappers. Nicotiana most commonly used for smoking have the most dramatic foliage of the whole clan, in my view.–Steve

Sue February 12, 2009, 11:04 pm

I grew the sylvestris one year, after admiring it at a local public garden. I planted it on the east side of the house, so maybe it didn’t get enough sun, but it got a bad case of aphids, so I didn’t try it again. I love it, though! Maybe I should try it in my new bed.

It should do OK on th east side unless you got it in late or had really voracious aphids. You might give those annoying varmints a blast of water laced with hort soap, that should deter them.–Steve

Shady Gardener February 14, 2009, 12:14 am

My parents have had wonderful luck with this plant in the past few years. It’s very prolific and the seedlings can get ahead of you if you’re not careful! They’re great plants, though!

Nancy J. Ondra March 6, 2009, 9:12 pm

I’ve *finally* gotten my post up, Steve. You chose a great topic – thanks!

Nicotianas I’ve Known and Loved

Nan

mick taylor May 11, 2009, 2:53 pm

we have nicotinia perfume mix but are not sure if thesen grow tall as well as the ones in your website?we bought them thinking of putting them in hanging baskets and tubs.
thanks mick

Maple D April 15, 2010, 12:26 pm

Hello Steve. I have grown lots of Nicotiana Sylvestris in my greenhouse and the seedlings are now very robust as I pricked them out into modular trays when they were very small several weeks ago. I water and spray them regularly with rainwater and feed them once a week on natural home brew organic plant food. It is now mid April and we are still getting the occasional ground frost here in North Hampshire (UK). When should I plant them out and will they need much hardening off? I plan to plant them into well composted herbaceous boarders in big drifts amongst established shrubs.
Best wishes
Maple D