University of Vermont Extension 
Department of Plant and Soil Science

Spring News Article


Dr. Leonard Perry, Extension Professor
University of Vermont
Each year the National Garden Bureau selects an annual flower of the year, which for 2009 is ornamental flowering tobacco.  Unlike its more well-known relative the smoking tobacco, this annual has quite showy flowers in many colors and with smaller leaves.
It often goes by its genus name (Nicotiana) as it contains nicotine.  With this ingredient it can be poisonous and so should not be ingested.  Other relatives in the nightshade family are petunias, tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, and potatoes,
Flowering tobaccos have large, trumpet-shaped blooms.  At the ends they flare into an open, five-pointed star shape.  Depending on cultivar (cultivated variety) they may be in shades of red, pink, purple, green, or yellow.  Similar to smoking tobacco, leaves are sticky hairy.
Tobaccos date back to at least the 1500's when the French ambassador to Portugal Jean Nicot (whom the name recognizes) brought powdered tobacco to France to cure the Queen's son of migraine headaches.  In the early 1800's, the first ornamental species (alata, sylvestris) were used in England and the United States for their tubular, white four-inch flowers that opened at night with a delicate fragrance.  Plants were not popular much of this past century as they were up to five feet tall and often needed staking, yet as an heirloom flower they are now making a comeback. 
A popular selection of the woodland tobacco (sylvestris), 'Only the Lonely' has large leaves and showy flower clusters exuding a sweet scent in evening.  Another tall species with large leaves (langsdorffii) has apple green, scentless flowers about two inches long.
Most commonly seen now are the garden hybrids, reaching only 12 to 18 inches tall. Many of these have showy flowers in various colors, staying open during day, but with little to no scent.  An exception is the short 'Saratoga' series, only reaching 10 to 12 inches tall.  Another hybrid with evening fragrance is the 'Perfume' series, developed from another species (sanderae).  'Perfume Deep Purple' was an All-America Selections winner in 2006.  'Sensation Mix' comes in a mix of colors, is taller than other hybrids (two feet or more tall), and has an evening scent.
The 'Nicki' series includes 'Nikki Red', the first flowering tobacco to win an All-America Selections award (1979).  The 'Domino' series has 13 colors of upward-facing flowers that bloom early compared to other series.  The 'Avalon' series includes a 2001 All-America winner 'Avalon Bright Pink'.  This is another dwarf series that, being under a foot tall, is well suited for fronts of borders and containers.  One I like to grow each year and place in front of a brick wall is 'Tinkerbell', two feet tall and with unusual dusky rose petals emerging from green trumpets.
Flowering tobaccos have small seeds, but are easy to grow from these.  Hybrids bloom about 10 weeks after sowing, the species in about 12 to 14 weeks.  Plant out after last frost, as they are susceptible to cold.  Allow 6 to 12 inches between plants of hybrids, 18 to 30 inches between plants of species.  Given full sun (they'll take a little shade), and well-drained soil, they are care-free.  Water and fertilize as you would other annuals. The tall species may require staking in windy areas.             

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