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Also known as flowering tobacco, the genus Nicotiana consists of more than 60 species, including the plant notorious for producing smoking tobacco. Nicotianas are named after Jean Nicot, a 16th century Ambassador who is credited with introducing tobacco to the French court, where it gained popularity in the form of medicinal snuff. Ornamental Nicotianas aren't grown for this usage, but for their uniquely beautiful flowers, wonderful fragrance, and graceful appearance in the garden. They are also deer-resistant, and are highly attractive to hummingbirds and butterflies! The trumpet-like, star- or bell-shaped flowers bloom throughout the season and come in a range of colors and bi-colors, from pure white to shades of pink, red and purple, and even true green.
Many Nicotianas are fairly tall plants—some topping out at over 8 feet—but their open habit fits nicely in the middle of a mixed border. They also do well in containers, as long as ample space is provided. Some modern hybrids have been bred for very short, compact growth, and can be tucked in anywhere a spot of color is required. Many varieties are highly fragrant, though generally at night, so plant near a window or patio where the sweet scent can be most enjoyed.
Nicotianas are easy to grow, but do best in rich soil in full sun. Amending with organic matter will help improve soil. Although relatively drought-tolerant, Nicotianas do appreciate regular watering, and a few applications of an organic flower fertilizer will keep plants in bloom all season. Most Nicotiana species are true perennials in their native climates, but rarely overwinter in Pacific Northwest gardens. However, they are very easy to start from seed.
Please note that all parts of Nicotiana plants are toxic if ingested, so keep away from nibbling pets or children.
N. alata is the species from which most of the modern hybrids are derived. Graceful and airy, it will grow to a bushy 5' tall and produce masses of highly scented flowers. The true species has greenish-white flowers, but many cultivars are available in a range of colors.
Upright, 3-5' tall by 2-3' wide. Long, bare stems hold sprays of small, green and yellow, upward-facing tubular flowers.
Bushy, 3-6' tall. Long stems rise above large, bold leaves. Green, pendant-like nodding flowers.
Tall, bushy tender perennial, 4-8' tall by 3' wide. Fragrant flowers start out white and fade to shades of pink. Loved by hummingbirds.
4-6' tall by 2-3' wide. Masses of tubular, fragrant white flowers hang in clusters. 'Only the Lonely' is a popular cultivar.
This is the species grown for smoking tobacco, though it is used medicinally by some professional herbalists. 3-6' tall by 2' wide, with upward-facing pink and white flowers and large leaves.
3' tall. Nodding, tubular flowers are a unique shade of dusky rose inside, with lime green backs. They also display unusual azure-colored pollen in the center of the flower.
Low-growing hybrids in a range of colors, from white to pink, red, purple, and lime green. 10-12" tall.
Upward-facing flowers in a lovely mix of colors, 18-24" tall, with nice evening fragrance.
3-4' tall. Slightly nodding, evening-scented flowers start pale pink and fade to a deep rose.
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Common name: Tobacco, flowering tobacco
Origin: Southwestern United States to South America; Southwestern Africa, and Australia. The most commonly grown species are from Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, or Peru.
Culture: Generally easy-care plants, Nicotianas grow best in full sun (8+ hours per day), but will tolerate partial sun or dappled shade. They appreciate fertile, well-drained soil and regular watering. Work plenty of compost into the planting site, and add a balanced organic fertilizer. Nicotianas are happiest in warm weather, but are somewhat hardy to light frosts.
Maintenance: Regular watering and moderate application of flower fertilizer will keep Nicotianas looking their best. Deadheading will also encourage continuous flowering. Taller varieties may need to be staked.
Pests & Diseases: Aphids and spider mites can sometimes be a problem. A strong spray of water from the garden hose can keep minor infestations at bay. For more serious bug problems, horticultural oils or insecticidal soaps can help. Powdery mildew and gray mold can also attack plants, especially during cool, rainy weather. Avoid crowding plants to encourage good air circulation, and water at the soil level to avoid wetting the plants' leaves. As a member of the nightshade family, Tobacco Mosaic Virus is a potential threat to Nicotianas.
Propagation: Nicotianas are easy to grow from seed. Start seeds indoors 4 to 8 weeks before the last frost date in a warm (75 degrees F) location. Place under grow lights or in a very sunny window until outside temperatures remain above 50 degrees F at night. Harden seedlings off before transplanting into the garden. Some species will readily reseed.