Nicotiana is named for the 16th-century French diplomat Jean Nicot and has been gracing gardens with its stature and fragrance for hundreds of years. Ironically, Nicot believed the unusual flowering tobacco plant was a cure-all for everything from headaches to cancer. While the opposite is now known to be true for tobacco’s medicinal properties, the flowers do provide beneficial nectar for giant moths and hummingbirds.
Get to Know Nicotiana
Flowering tobacco belongs to the notorious Solanaceae (nightshade) family, which contains the poisonous belladonna and datura species, as well as vegetable garden favorites like potatoes and eggplant. Flowers of the genus Nicotiana bear some resemblance to petunias, another nightshade relative, in appearance and evening fragrance. Flowering tobacco plants produce fuzzy, sticky foliage and flower stalks with nodding trumpet-shaped flowers. Each flower has five petals that flare at the end. The flower colors complement one another so that you can plant a mix for an attractive large nicotiana bed. Most varieties are various shades of pink, white, red, and pale green.
Nicotiana cultivars vary from 18 inches to 5 feet in height. Gardeners looking for tall flowering tobacco varieties should stick with heirloom types, as newer compact varieties are bred to flower while still growing in nursery six-packs.
How to Plant Nicotiana
You can find transplants of newer nicotiana varieties at the nursery, but most of the tall heirloom types must be started from seed. Nicotiana seeds germinate readily in warm soil, sometimes even within 48 hours of sowing. Light aids germination of these tiny seeds, so press them lightly into the soil but don’t cover them up. You can also sow these directly in the garden, where Mother Nature will cue the germination of the seeds.
These plants demand warm weather and warm soil to thrive. Choose a site with full sun and rich, moist, humus-y soil. In areas with hot summers, a few hours of afternoon shade will keep plants from developing sun scorch. Don’t set transplants outdoors until at least two weeks after your average last frost date, as flowering tobacco plants are warm-season annuals that appreciate the same balmy nights as tomatoes. Cold, wet spring soil encourages root rot and damping off disease.
Keep nicotiana plants moist, and fertilize them every other week throughout the growing season, which lasts from early summer until the first frost. Stop deadheading the plants at the end of summer if you’d like a few volunteers for the following season.
Flea beetles and the tobacco hornworm are the most serious pests of flowering tobacco plants. You can recognize flea beetle damage by the presence of myriad tiny holes in the foliage. Floating row covers can protect young plants; larger healthy plants are seldom damaged to the point of death. Diatomaceous earth is a very effective deterrent to flea beetles, and it’s organic.
If your flowering tobacco plant seems to have lost half its foliage overnight, look closely for the tobacco hornworm. The thumb-sized green caterpillars sport a nasty looking barb on their tails. This pest presents a paradox for the gardener: The caterpillars mature into the very hummingbird moths you may wish to attract to your flowers. If the caterpillar damage is bothersome, you can handpick the pests (with gloves) or apply Bacillus thuringiensis.
Nicotiana in the Garden
The light and airy habit of nicotiana is welcome in any sunny spot in the flower garden. Flowering tobacco is a natural choice for the cottage garden. Grow it alongside other heirloom annual flowers like balsam, love-in-a-mist, or spider flowers. You can plant red varieties of nicotiana in the hummingbird garden, but the birds are attracted to all shades of flowering tobacco. White flowering tobacco is a must for the moon garden, as the fragrance intensifies at night, and hummingbird moths will seek out the tubular blossoms for their rich nectar content.
One spot in the garden that isn't so suitable for flowering tobacco plants is the vegetable garden. Because some very popular vegetables, like tomatoes and peppers, are members of the nightshade family, they carry the same diseases. Mosaic virus and wilts can travel between nightshade members via pests like leafhoppers and may persist in the soil for years.
Nicotiana Varieties to Try
On seed trading forums, look for nicotiana seeds listed under flowering tobacco, woodland tobacco, and jasmine tobacco.
- Baby Bella Antique Red: Larger than usual deep red flowers on two-foot plants
- Lime Green: Makes a fun bouquet filler or partner to purple flowers
- Nikki Red: An All-America Selections award winner
- Perfume series: 20-inch tall plants are extra fragrant
- Saratoga series: The shortest plants for the front of the border in shades of pink, white, and red
- Sylvestris: Huge leaves and five-foot flower stalks of white blooms