Are you looking for a plant that will attract hummingbirds and butterflies? Do you desire a flower with a delicious scent? Are you interested in growing an heirloom variety that might have graced your great-grandmotherís garden? Or perhaps you are seeking a colorful, carefree bedding plant. If you answered yes to any of these, consider the versatile nicotiana.
Nicotiana (ni-co-shee-AA-nah) is a member of the Solanaceae or nightshade family, and native to South America, particularly Brazil, Bolivia and Argentina. The most widely cultivated member of the family, N. tabacum, has long been grown for the production of tobacco leaf. Flowering tobacco became common as an ornamental garden plant in the U.S. and England in the early 1800’s. The two types of ornamental nicotiana you are most likely to see growing in a flower garden today are N. alata and N. sylvestris. Although the native species are very tall, reaching up to 5 feet in height, newer, much more dainty hybrids have been developed. The flowers of all nicotianas are shaped like a long tube, flaring at the end into a five-petaled star formation.
In 1753, Linnaeus named the plant nicotiana in recognition of Jean Nicot, a 16th-century French ambassador to Portugal. Upon his return from negotiating the marriage of the 6-year-old French royal princess to the 5-year-old King Sebastian of Portugal in 1559, Nicot introduced tobacco as medicinal plant to the French court, becoming something of a celebrity in the process. The plant was at first called nicotina, but eventually “nicotine” came to refer only to the alkaloid found in tobacco leaves. Today nicotiana refers to not only the tobacco plant but to a number of different ornamental flowering plants.
Nicotiana is "a poor figure by day ... but with the coming 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.”
~ Louise Beebe Wilder
Species Nicotiana N. alata is a spindly-looking, open and airy plant reaching between 3 and 4 feet tall. It gets its name from the Latin term “alata” meaning “winged,” a reference to the leaves’ winged petioles. Its long-tubed flowers are white to pale yellowish-green and open only at night to reveal a sweet, jasmine-like fragrance. Plant it in a moon garden, or next to doorways, patios and decks where you can appreciate its evening scent.
The variety N. sylvestris gets its name from the Latin “sylva,” or “of the woods” -- probably due to its natural woodland habitat. This stately plant forms a rosette with vigorous stems reaching 3 to 5 feet in height. Its hanging clusters of fragrant flowers, which unlike N. alata are open during the day, are often called shooting stars. Place N. sylvestris in a white garden, at the back of a border, or wherever you want to enjoy the hummingbirds and butterflies it will attract.
Both N. alata and N. sylvestris are tender perennials that are winter hardy to zone 10; with protection they may successfully overwinter even farther north. Under optimum conditions, they may self-sow. You are unlikely to find species nicotiana for sale in garden centers, so if you want them in your garden you must start the plant from seed, either sowing indoors 6 to 8 weeks prior to the last frost date, or directly in the garden after the last frost. Species nicotiana will bloom from summer through fall in a cool summer climate, but in hotter areas they may fade somewhat when the weather becomes hot. Deadheading flowers as they finish will help prolong the plants' bloom.
N. langsdorffi is another South American annual maturing at around 5 feet in height. This beauty features long, nodding, tubular flowers the color of a Granny Smith apple. Long, broad leaves make the foliage showy as well. Like other chartruese flowers, this nicotiana is useful as a foil to numerous other plants, particularly those with purple or dark red flowers or leaves. N. langsdorffi is scentless, and is grown for its color only.
Culture Site nicotiana in full sun to light shade. All nicotianas enjoy an average to rich, well-drained soil. In hot climates, the species nicotianas may appreciate some afternoon shade. Take care not to plant nicotiana near vegetables which are also members of the nightshade family, such as tomatoes, potatoes, peppers and eggplant, since they are all susceptible to the same viruses.
Combinations The National Garden Bureau website suggests combining N. alata with other evening-scented plants such as moonflower (Ipomoea alba), four-o-clocks (Mirabilis jalapa) and night-scented stock (Matthiola bicornis). Or pair it with fragrant day-time flowers like heliotrope (Heliotropium aborescens) and sweet pea (Lathyrus odoratus), so that your garden will offer up scent around the clock. Both of the stately species nicotianas work well with other tall annual plants such as cosmos and cleome, and are right at home in the back of a cottage garden with hollyhocks, foxgloves and tall lilies.
Nicotiana Hybrids Plant breeders have created many delightful cultivars from the nicotiana species, with compact plants of varying heights which require no dead-heading. These nicotianas are useful as bedding plants, adding a bright shot of color from early summer through fall. Although most are scentless, a few of the hybrids even preserve some of the species nicotiana's perfume. One of the best known hybrids is the semi-dwarf 'Nicki' series, with red, white, rose or lime green flowers, only 16 to 18 inches tall. Garden centers often also feature the ‘Domino’ series, available in bi-colors as well as solid colors and maturing at 12 to 18 inches.
Tinkerbell’ features unusual two-toned flowers of dusty rose and green and can reach 3 feet in height. Shortest of all is the 'Saratoga' series at a mere 10 to 12 inches tall. This series is said to have a light evening scent. Colors include lime green, deep rose, white, pink and a purple bicolor.
If you’d like to have fragrance as well as the ease of a hybrid grower, another nicotiana cultivar to try is 'Perfume' series, whose 2-inch long flowers emit a light evening scent. Deep purple, lilac-blue and lime green are among the‘Perfume’ series bloom colors. Another dependable grower with a sweet scent is the ‘Sensation Mix’, reaching from 2 1/2 to 3 feet in height.
Thanks to these DG Member photographers: Thumbnail photo of N. alata 'Perfume Mix' by 22cold; N. alata by poppysue; N. langsdorffi by Happenstance; N. sylvestris by TGBDN; nicotiana seeds by gardengus; N. x sanderae 'Nicki Red' by yvana; N. alata 'Domino Salmon Pink' by Tammylp; N. x sanderae 'Tinkerbell' by fairy1004; N. alata 'Perfume Mix' by 22cold; N. alata 'Saratoga Lime' by Kell; N. x sanderae 'Sensation Mix' by Weezingreens
After spending 28 years as a teacher and librarian, Gwen Bruno is now a full-time freelance writer residing in suburban Chicago. As a preschooler, she lovingly tended a small patch of weeds in her backyard. Luckily, her parents supported her budding horticultural endeavors, and she's been gardening ever since.