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How to Grow: Nicotiana
Learn about nicotiana or flowering tobacco, including varieties and how to plant and grow them.
Listen to Podcast:
full sun, part sun
Bloom Period and Seasonal Color
Mid summer until fall in colors of blue, white, red, and pale green
Mature Height x Spread
1 to 5 feet x 1 to 2 feet
attracts beneficials, attracts hummingbirds, deer resistant
This relative of tobacco, tomato, petunia and deadly nightshade plants features sometimes fragrant, trumpet-shaped flowers on plants ranging from 1 to 5 feet tall. These sturdy plants are reliable bloomers in a flower border with their colorful flowers that hummingbirds and butterflies love. While newer varieties are compact and bloom almost right in the container, older heirlooms are taller, later blooming, and have more fragrant flowers. Nicotiana are great plants to give your garden bed a mid summer boost since they bloom so profusely and you can grow varieties with varying heights to match your needs. Nicotiana will self-sow readily so watch for seedlings in spring the following year.
Where, When and How to Plant
Start seeds indoors 4 to 6 weeks before your last frost date or purchase seedlings from the local garden center. When buying seedlings avoid plants with flowers or yellowing leaves. These may be slow growing in the garden. Plant in the garden or containers after the last frost date for your area, in a full to part sun location on well-drained soil. The more sun nicotiana receives, the better it will flower. Space shorter varieties 6- to 12- inches apart and tall varieties up to 3 feet apart.
Keep plants well watered and fertilize monthly with an organic plant food. Keep plants weeded and remove or thin out any self-sown seedlings from pervious years. Self-sown seedlings from hybrid varieties tend not to flower as well as new plants. Remove these seedlings each spring.
Regional Advice and Care
Newer varieties of nicotiana are self-cleaning meaning the flowers don’t have to be deadheaded. However, older, taller varieties benefit from removing the spent blossoms. Support taller varieties with a stake or cage or plant in groups so they can support each other. Control aphids and spider mites on plants with spray in insecticidal soap. Tobacco hornworm will eat the leaves of nicotiana. Spray Bacillus thuriengensis (Dipel or Thuricide) to control to pest.
Companion Planting and Design
Plant fragrant, tall heirloom varieties close a window, deck or porch where you can enjoy the fragrance and see the butterflies and hummingbirds visiting the blooms. Group newer hybrid varieties with other annual and perennial flowers, such as foxglove, hollyhocks and zinnias, or with other nicotiana varieties of various colors.
The ‘Saratoga Series’ and ‘Domino Series’ feature short plants that flower in pink, white or red, while the ‘Sensation Mix’ have plants that grow to 3 feet tall. ‘Lime Green’ has unusual pale green colored flowers. ‘Nicki Red’ is an award-winning compact variety with good weather tolerance. ‘Sylvestris’ is an heirloom that grows up to 5 feet tall with fragrant flowers.
Excerpted from my book, New England Getting Started Garden Guide.
This common annual flower is related to a plant that has been grown and used for 6,000 years. It helped the early colonists survive in the New World, but unfortunately, was a crop associated with slavery and is now known to cause lung cancer. While tobacco has a checkered past, its cousin, the flowering tobacco or nicotiana, is a great flower in the garden.
Nicotiana varieties range in sizes with various colored flowers and even fragrance. Most of the varieties found in garden centers are hybrids such as the Saratoga, Domino, Sensation and Nikki series. They grow 1 to 2 feet tall with flower colors from white to dark red. The ones I’m most interested in, though, are the species types. Nicotiana alata and Nicotiana sylvestris are large plants that grow 3 to 5 feet tall. They feature white, trumpet-shaped flowers forming in clusters that open towards evening. The beauty of these types is the heady fragrance that wafts from the flowers all night long. Plant them near a window where you can enjoy the scent on a warm summer evening.
Nicotiana grows best in full sun on well-drained soil. Many hybrid varieties are self-cleaning, meaning they don’t need deadheading to remove their old blooms. They do self-sow readily, but the seedlings that sprout the next year from hybrids will not be the same color as the adults. So, thin or remove them now as they emerge so they don’t crowd a bed.
If you’re looking to attract butterflies, beneficial insects and hummingbirds to your garden, grow the open pollinated, heirloom or species versions. These have more nectar than the hybrids and are more attractive or beneficial to butterflies and bees.