Nicotiana x sanderae 'Little Nicky'

Nicotiana: what is a tobacco plant and how to grow it

Half-hardy plants with airy flowers in dark maroon to apple green, most nicotianas also bring heady scent to summer evenings. Words Matthew Reese, photographs Jason Ingram

The genus Nicotiana was named for Jean Nicot, a French diplomat who served as ambassador to Portugal between 1559 and 1561. While in Lisbon, Nicot was introduced to tobacco from South America and, convinced of its medicinal properties, presented the French queen, Catherine de Médicis, with leaves as a remedy for headaches. Her endorsement (helped possibly by a degree of addiction) meant that l’herbe à la reine, as tobacco (Nicotiana tabacum) was known, became so popular that the nicotiana plant was cultivated in France and elsewhere in northern Europe to meet demand. Since the 16th century tobacco has become a major economic commodity, yet many nicotianas make excellent ornamental plants for the flower garden. There has been a recent surge in new cultivars entering the market, and in the UK’s temperate climate, these flowering tobaccos do particularly well. Nicotianas are easy to grow from seed, and once established in the garden need very little assistance. They require no deadheading, rarely need staking, and will continue to flower profusely until the frosts of winter take hold.

Erigeron karvinskianus
© Claire Takacs

The taller nicotianas, such as Nicotiana mutabilis and Nicotiana Whisper mix, particularly good at casting long, branching stems of translucent pink flowers above and between the border perennials – and they look particularly elegant when backlit by low sunlight. Nicotiana langsdorffii or Nicotiana ‘Tinkerbell’ can be used in a similar manner, but their green flowers risk being lost in a green background, so are best used near the front of the border where they can be admired.

The larger-flowered cultivars are very good for late summer bedding in mixed borders. The green-flowered cultivars, such as Nicotiana ‘Lime Green’, are excellent in combination with the clambering, magenta-flowered Petunia integrifolia (a close cousin of the tobaccos), or the powder-blue flowers of Ageratum houstonianum ‘Blue Horizon’. The more sizeable Nicotiana sylvestris is a wonderful, stately plant that can hold its own when partnered with other large, bold plants. In the Exotic Garden, at Great Dixter, it combined well with cannas and dahlias.

What is Nicotiana?

Nicotiana is a genus of 67 species of half-hardy annuals, perennials, and a few woody plants, all of which are poisonous. Nicotiana tabacum is most widely grown commercially for tobacco production, but many other species have beautiful flowers and make excellent garden plants. Nicotiana is native of America (mostly the tropics), Pacific Islands, Namibia and Australia and the plants’ season is summer into autumn. Although they may flower year-round when grown in a heated greenhouse. Nicotiana’s can grow up to 1.5m and they are best grown as half-hardy annuals in a warm sunny position, and in moist and rich, free-draining soil.

Nicotianas are generally grown as half-hardy annuals in the UK. Most have a hardiness rating of RHS H2 and are suitable for gardens in USDA zones 9a to 11.



Nicotiana Evening Fragrance mix

Nicotiana Evening Fragrance Mix
© Jason Ingram

A colourful seed strain with large, highly fragrant, pendent blooms. Flowers are produced prolifically through the summer in shades of pink, rose, red, lilac, mauve-purple and white. Flowers are at their nicest in  the evening and scented from 6pm into the night. 90cm. RHS H2, USDA 9a-11.


Nicotiana ‘Tinkerbell’

Nicotiana alata 'Tinkerbell'
© Jason Ingram

A new and particularly interesting tobacco, which is a hybrid of Nicotiana langsdorffii, and has an open, branching habit with many bicoloured, tubular flowers arranged in drooping panicles. The blooms are chartreuse-green with red faces and green eyes. It makes an excellent cut flower. 1.2m. RHS H2, USDA 9a-11.


Nicotiana x sanderae ‘Cuba Deep Lime’

Nicotiana ◊ sanderae 'Cuba Deep Lime'
© Jason Ingram

A vigorous, compact plant with large, apple-green flowers that are produced throughout summer and are scented in the evenings. Plant in free-draining soil or containers. Looks good with Salvia patens ‘Cambridge Blue’. 30cm. RHS H2, USDA 9a-11.


Nicotiana langsdorffii

Nicotiana langsdorffii
© Jason Ingram

This plant has a wonderful airy carriage with slender stems bearing masses of downward-facing, trumpet-shaped flowers in lime green. Conspicuous, dark-blue anthers protrude slightly from the centre of each flower. Nicotiana langsdorffii makes a wonderful companion for blue salvias or pink dahlias. 1.5m. AGM. RHS H2, USDA 9a-11.


Nicotiana ‘Babybella’

Nicotiana x hybrida 'Baby Bella'
© Jason Ingram

A new cultivar with large, dark-maroon flowers held on stiff flower spikes. Flowers all summer and makes a good pot plant and cut flower. Combines well with Ageratum houstonianum ‘Blue Horizon’ or Cerinthe major ‘Purpurascens’. 60cm. RHS H2, USDA 9a-11.


Nicotiana x sanderae ‘Perfume Deep Purple’

Nicotiana x sanderae 'Perfume Deep Purple'
© Jason Ingram

One of the Perfume Series bred for disease resistance, improved flowering and strong evening fragrance. The upward-facing, velvety purple flowers have contrasting yellow anthers and are produced all summer. 40cm. RHS H2, USDA 9a-11.


Nicotiana ‘Lime Green’

Nicotiana alata 'Lime Green'
© Jason Ingram

This cultivar has smaller, lime-green flowers on taller stems than the squatter Nicotiana ‘Cuba Deep Lime’, and also makes an excellent bedding plant. As with most green-flowered plants, it will consort with almost anything and is a long-lasting cut flower. 50cm. AGM. RHS H2, USDA 9a-11.


Nicotiana ‘Starlight Dancer’

Nicotiana x hybrida 'Starlight Dancer'
© Jason Ingram

A recent cross between Nicotiana langsdorffii and Nicotiana alata. Produces tall, branching stems with masses of green and white, bell-shaped flowers. Looks like a white Nicotiana langsdorffii and is a good see-through plant for weaving. 1m. RHS H2, USDA 9a-11.


Nicotiana sylvestris

Nicotiana sylvestris
© Jason Ingram

Larger and more stately than other ornamental tobaccos, it has striking, paddle-shaped foliage held on strong, woody stems. Long, tubular, white flowers are scented and held in tight clusters that shoot outwards. Can self-seed and is nearly hardy. 1.5m. AGM. RHS H2, USDA 9a-11.


Nicotiana Whisper mix

Nicotiana x hybrida 'Whisper Mixed'
© Jason Ingram

A tall new hybrid with masses of star-shaped flowers similar to Nicotiana alata but with the colouring of its other parent Nicotiana mutabilis. Blossoms open in shades of soft pink and darken with age. Flowers continuously through summer until the first frosts. 90cm. RHS H2, USDA 9a-11.


Nicotiana x sanderae Eau de Cologne mixed

Nicotiana 'Eau de Cologne Mixed'
© Jason Ingram

A short bedding mix that produces masses of upward-facing blooms in shades of red, pink, mauve, green and purple. Blooms resist closing during the day and are scented in the evening. Excellent for front of the border or pot. 50cm. RHS H2, USDA 9a-11.


Nicotiana suaveolens