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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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