Now is the season when garden centre customers and gardeners with decent greenhouses begin sowing seed. An old favourite that still offers something for the discerning palette is Nicotiana. There are plenty of robust annuals perfectly suited as bedding plants, but there are also some more statuesque species that add a real wow factor to the back of a border.
Nicotiana is in the large potato family, Solanaceae. Many members of this group contain potent alkaloids and some are toxic. The genus Nicotiana contains the common tobacco plant N. tabacum, which is dried to become the addictive drug and was widely used as an insecticide in the past.
But the dark substances within the genus are in perfect contrast with their beauty. Nicotiana plants possess fantastic tubular flowers that often give off a sweet fragrance in the evening. They come in shades of white, pink, purple and lime green.
There are several tall species that create drama, such as N. langsdorffii Award of Garden Merit (AGM),
N. knightiana and N. sylvestris AGM with its unusual candelabra flower heads. These look great at the back of a border or floating over other plants in drifts towards the centre.
Plant biologist Ken Thompson points out that species containing high levels of nicotine can be harmful to beneficial insects in our gardens. These include N. tabacum and N. rustica, the original tobacco plant brought to these shores by Sir Walter Raleigh that turned out to be far too toxic to smoke. Luckily neither of these are ornamental.
Much better, he says, are the plants that attract moth pollinators with their pale-coloured tubular flowers that give off scent at night. This group includes N. sylvestris AGM as well as the highly attractive N. alata and the most scented of all but rarely seen N. noctiflora.
Being from warm, tropical and subtropical areas of North and South America, Nicotiana are classified as half-hardy annuals here and are generally grown from seed sown indoors in early spring or outdoors in late spring, after the last frost. They are also a popular cut flower and can be used in vegetable gardens to lure whitefly away from crops — the bugs get caught on the somewhat sticky leaves.
Tobacco mosaic virus can be a real problem, causing leaves to become mottled and wither. It is very persistent — said to live for up to 50 years in dried plant material, such as cigarette tobacco — so one of the controls is to avoid smoking before handling plants in the Solanaceae family. There is no chemical control so the best defence is hygiene. Keep tools sterilised and immediately remove any affected plants.
N.‘Tinkerbell’ - image: Floramedia
What the specialists say
Alison Smith, nursery team, Brookside Nursery, Staffordshire
"Nicotiana are grown in the UK as annuals, meaning they grow, set seed and die in the same season. They are invaluable to bring fragrance into the mixed border. Nicotiana originate in the warm tropical and subtropical areas of North and South America. They are a member of the tobacco family and do actually contain nicotine.
They are poisonous and must not be ingested.
"Our range Nicotiana Cuba Mixed grow into a mass of perfumed flowers on compact stems with vibrant colour all summer long. If you have received plug plants, pot them on into a good-quality multipurpose compost and give them cold-weather protection.
Plant them into their final flowering positions once frost has passed in your area. Although the plants like regular watering, ensure that the roots are not waterlogged.
"Our top tip for veg growers is to use Nicotiana as a companion (sacrificial) plant among vegetable crops. Whitefly are drawn to the sometimes sticky leaves of the Nicotiana and this helps to reduce damage to precious vegetables."
Nina Marshall, customer adviser, Chiltern Seeds, Oxfordshire
"Nicotiana is a very popular plant among experienced gardeners and beginners, producing the most beautiful flowers for months on end. The varieties we stock range in height from 20-150cm, something for small or large gardens, pots or borders. They are also easy-to-grow cut flowers.
"We have a new variety for 2017, the Avalon Series, which we are quite excited about. The three colour varieties are unusual and guaranteed to stand out. They are only 20cm tall so compact too. Lime Nicotiana has always sold well for us over the past three years and it remains a very fashionable colour in plants.
"N. ‘Only the Lonely’ is also a must-have, a much larger plant at 1.5m and it suits partially shaded spots in the garden. It has the most exquisite towering candelabras, handsomely hung with fragrant, long, narrow-tubed flowers all summer long.
"Sow indoors between March and April or sow directly outside after the last expected frost. To produce plants under glass, sow thinly into moist, well-drained seed compost then cover with a fine layer of vermiculite. Propagate at 18-22°C. Do not exclude light. Germination lasts 10-14 days. Transplant seedlings once large enough to handle 8cm pots. Acclimatise and plant out after danger of frost has passed with 40cm spacing. You can sow direct where the plant is to flower after the last frost. Surface sow and water lightly."
N. langsdorffii - image: Floramedia
Andrew Martinovs, general manager, Thompsons Garden Centre, Welling, London
"Nicotiana are certainly less popular nowadays than a decade ago, when we sold individual bedding colours. Now we generally just stock a mixed dwarf type. A few years ago a lime-green type sold very well, as at the time it was something a bit different. The plants are sold in six-packs with coloured labels and large point of sale.
"Even though it is available I rarely get asked for the seed. If the loss in its popularity is UK-wide it is a crying shame. The scent given off on a cool, still summer’s evening is magnificent. I have tried to promote this personally in the garden centre — what other bedding plant really offers that fragrance?
"The larger bedding varieties really have to be given space, cultivated and staked if necessary, then they really come into their own. Our larger ‘Jumbo’ Nicotiana pots available in midsummer were excellent. They were liable to be top heavy as full of flower, so support was therefore needed in their pots."
N. sylvestris - image: Floramedia
Species and varieties
N. alata grandiflora produces masses of lovely creamy white, slender, trumpet-shaped flowers in summer and autumn. They give off a heady perfume and are reckoned by some to be the most highly scented tobacco available. Its flowers are delicate in bright sunlight, so best planted with a little shade.
N. alata ‘Lime Green’ has velvety acid-green trumpet flowers and oval leaves. A very good cut flower. It tends to get mildew so keep it well watered. Height: 45-60cm.
N. Domino Series produces erect, bushy, free-flowering annual bedding plants. They have large ovate leaves and fragrant flowers in shades of pink, light crimson, purple and salmon-pink, sometimes with white eyes. Height: 30cm.
N. knightiana is an even taller plant than N. langsdorffii (see below), perfect for the back of the border or to float above other plants. It has small tubular flowers in a nice shade of apple green. Broad, deep-green leaves. Height: 120-180cm.
N. langsdorffii AGM (H2) is a handsome plant with a basal rosette of large, sticky, mid-green leaves and very tall stems topped with nodding, light limey green, long-tubed, bell-shaped flowers. These open in summer evenings. Height: 150cm. Spread: 30cm.
N. ‘Lime Green’ AGM (H2) is a popular variety with an erect habit, bearing oval leaves and lime-green flowers in summer. Height: 60cm.
N. mutabilis has trumpet-shaped flowers that begin creamy white, graduate to pink and mature to a deep rose. With flowers of all ages on the plant, it creates an attractive multicoloured effect. Not fragrant. Height: 150cm. Spread: 75cm.
N. noctiflora is shorter than most, with wire-thin stems supporting long-tubed white fragrant flowers. Plant them in a cool corner of the garden because they do not thrive in direct sun. Height: 60cm.
N. suaveolens is rarely seen but produces lightly scented white flowers with a pinkish coloured tube. Flowers July to September. Height: 80cm. Spread 30cm.
N. sylvestris AGM (H2) is a dramatic plant producing tall stems topped with a compact panicle of sweetly fragrant white flowers above a rosette of dark-green leaves. Actually a biennial or short-lived perennial, but generally grown as a half-hardy annual in colder climates. Height: 150cm. Spread: 60cm.
N. sylvestris ‘Only the Lonely’ is an excellent variety that features elegant long white trumpet-shaped flowers. Height: 120-150cm.
N. ‘Tinkerbell’ is a favourite of garden designer Dan Pearson because of its green bell-shaped flowers with a suedey textured oxblood colour inside. Height: 150cm. Spread: 30cm.
Thank you to Floramedia, which supplied the images for this article from its photo library www.floramedia-picture-library.com