Ornamental tobacco

Sunday, 04 November 2018

Cultivar of Nicotiana alata

It's perhaps hard to believe that the plant used for commercial tobacco (Nicotiana tabacum) has some beautiful ornamental relatives, which flourish in Sydney gardens and bring quite harmless joy to many gardeners. I have grown various species since I first began gardening in 1981. I started with low-growing annual types available in punnets, probably the hybrid compact forms of Nicotiana x sanderae, which feature large, star-shaped flowers in colours of white, pinks, reds and purples. These were popular in the English cottage gardens I loved in my early gardening days. Early forms of these plants opened only in the late afternoon, exuding a sweet scent, but more recent versions stay open all day.

Nicotiana alata Lime Green

The species Nicotiana alata, one of the parents of Nicotiana x sanderae, is a taller plant (to 1 m) and seen less often; however, it has some lovely forms that are well worth seeking out. It is really a perennial in mild climates like ours. I was recently given a beautiful burgundy-flowered version. Nicotiana alata can be grown from cuttings, and may also self-seed. A few years ago I obtained a very unusual form that has grown to a robust clump about 80 cm tall, and has startling lime-green flowers. It is possibly the cultivar of Nicotiana alata known as 'Lime Green', grown as annual in English gardens but so far it has been resoundingly perennial in my Sydney garden. 'Lime Green' was a recipient of the prestigious Award of Garden Merit by the UK Royal Horticultural Society, and this accolade seems fully deserved! My plant is in bloom for much of the year and I have found a few seedlings of it scattered through my garden this spring. I grow my clump in part-shade and the flowers stay open all day. It can be propagated by cuttings or grown from seed. It is a wonderful companion plant to other flowers of various hues: at the moment, I am enjoying a strong contrast of the Nicotiana with a 'Big Red' Pelargonium and wreaths of self-sown red and orange nasturtiums. The lime-green flowers also look effective with the blue or purple blooms of various Salvia varieties, as well as with purple foliage.

Nicotiana langsdorffii

Another species with lime-green flowers is Nicotiana langsdorffii, regarded as an annual, though it is really a frost-tender perennial and can survive for several years in our gardens. It can grow around a metre tall. It has large soft leaves and flower spires massed with a haze of tiny lime-green tubular bells, which can appear almost all year round, but particularly in the warmer months, if cut back occasionally to rejuvenate it. The flowers feel slightly sticky. It prefers a sunny spot (though will also bloom well in part shade); it is indifferent to soil type, often coming up in cracks in paving. In some gardens it will self-seed with abandon, though in others it never reappears. This may be a result of heavy mulching suffocating the tiny seeds. It is rarely seen in nurseries and is best obtained as a seedling dug up from a friend's garden!

Nicotiana sylvestris

Another keen self-seeder is Nicotiana sylvestris, the tallest Nicotiana that I grow. It needs space for its enormous lush basal leaves - some recently came up in a gap in a shaded shrubbery. Of all the Nicotiana species, this one copes best with shade, even deep shade, because if grown in full sun, the flowers close up during the day. It sends up spires up to 1.5 m tall massed with long, white, tubular flowers, looking rather like a candelabra. Like many of the species, the blooms are fragrant. This one seems to be an annual or quite short-lived perennial in my garden and is propagated by seed. I just let a few of the self-seedlings remain each spring and enjoy their amazing display each summer.

Nicotiana mutabilis

My favourite species of all is Nicotiana mutabilis. This lovely plant was given to me many years ago as 'Robyn's tobacco plant' and has proved to be perennial in my garden. It has a large soft rosette of basal leaves, and through much of the year, it sends up branched spires (ht 1-1.3 m) of pretty funnel-shaped flowers which change colour from white, to pale pink to rose pink as they age, giving a multicoloured effect like a packet of pastel marshmallows. I cut spent stems back every so often and more will then appear. The flowers stay open all day. It enjoys a sunny spot with fair, but not overly rich soil. In some gardens (not mine) it self-seeds - I propagate it via cuttings. The flowers are giving a dreamy effect in a border in my garden at the moment with blue Salvia species and cultivars, Cynoglossum, Dahlia, Linaria, Gaura and poppies.

Most Nicotiana seem to do best in a reasonable soil with some moisture. It is best to give them enough space so they aren't crowded out by surrounding plants. The genus belongs to the family Solanaceae, with many species being native to Brazil and Argentina. The family Solanaceae contains a number of poisonous members, and Nicotiana plants should never be ingested (or smoked!). Contact with the foliage may irritate skin, so gloves should be worn when handling the plants.

Reader Comments

  • By margaret 2122 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 05 November 2018

    Thank you for your extensive information on the Nicotiana. I was also given a plant of the burgundy, and it is an absolute treasure. I have N. langsdorffii and N. sylvestris, but have never had any luck with N. mutabilis. Perhaps I have not given it its ideal situation. I was unaware the Nicotiana can be grown by cuttings - I have only had N. sylvestris self seed - it comes up in the most astonishing spots. The N."lime green" sounds a very dashing and worthwhile plant. Thanks, Margaret. I am going to try to propagate my lime green one by cuttings so I can share it with others. Deirdre

  • By Pam 2159 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 05 November 2018

    I too have a few nicotiana flowering now - the lime green and the white which changes to pink. Sometimes they live for a year or two, sometimes they self seed. I entered a wonderful spike of the lime green in a flower show last year, and it created quite a stir as it it is such an unusual colour! They are interesting and unusual plants. I particularly like the lime-green one. Deirdre

  • By Gaynor 5044 (Zone:10 - Mediteranean) Monday, 05 November 2018

    I have been wondering if the large plant that came up in my garden and is still growing taller is a nicotania. I have been waiting for it to flower. I had the "sylvestris" flowering nearby last year, so ever hopeful. I love the perfume in the afternoon. Nicotiana sylvetsris is certainly an amazing plant. Hope your mystery plant flowers soon. Deirdre

  • By Maureen 2118 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Wednesday, 07 November 2018

    A very thorough blog! I didn"t know there were so many varieties and will be on the look out at the next CGC meeting for a couple and also on the BDGC "table" next year. The line green would look great mixed in with blue. I will certainly try to propagate some of my varieties next year. Deirdre

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