Number 39    November - December 2004


By Bea Whyld

Nicotiana (Flowering tobacco) tends to close its flowers by day, the petals relaxing to limpness then coming alive to release their exotic scent only in the evening. They can be spectacular, and given space, they develop, and their colors show a strange luminosity in evening light.

Nicotiana alata

Although folklore tells us Sir Walter Raleigh first introduced N. tabacum, used by the inhabitants of the New World, to Queen Elizabeth I, research reveals it might have been Sir John Hawkins and/or his crew who in 1564/1565 took it back to England. Actually, Spanish and Portuguese sailors spread the habit of tobacco use around the world.

Whoever did the deed, I am sure had no idea what was being started and the long-term ramifications of their actions. However, it is important to remember that the Nicotiana family includes a large variety of ornamental plants that can be grown in your own garden. There are three different varieties currently featured in the Shakespeare Garden.

Two valuable single colors have long had their fanciers, the pure white and the lime green. Lime green comes in the form of N. alata, an elegant plant with its height, size of foliage, flowers, degree of branching and the quantity of flowers open at any one time, all in scale and not so tall as to be out of place in smaller gardens. This is the form currently in bloom in the Shakespeare Garden. Head Gardener Katarina Eriksson reports it reseeds itself all over the garden requiring keeping an eye out for pulling up of unwanted seedlings.

Although reaching 2 1/2-3 feet (75-90 cm) this white plant has foliage which is sufficiently discreet to allow it to be grown in large pots. Its flowers have boldness enough to make a visual impact and a scent to add its own intoxication to a relaxing drink on a summer's evening. Placing a clump in the sunny angle of a hedge in a city garden ensures that the flowers are set off well and the scent held in the evening air.

Nicotiana sylvestris

N. alata cultivar 'Lime Green', which is being planted in our Garden as we are going to press, is a wonderful, versatile plant with 1" green flowers produced in profusion for three months or more with 2-3" tall "flowering tobacco". It grows in full sun to full shade and provides a new alternative to the usual shade annuals. Its clear lime green color looks great next to Salvia patens, Impatiens, Lobelia and Forget-me-nots. Average water and good soil are all it needs. It is a long lasting cut flower.

Another variety is N. sylvestris with the strange cultivar name 'Only the Lonely.'  It has great, soft, rather sticky, pale green foliage. This foliage is impressive from early on but its vital supporting midrib can be damaged in strong winds and then the leaf flops.

This plant, which blooms in spring, is intensely fragrant, with long tubular white flowers that are borne in tiers atop a statuesque plant. While it is an annual, it has been known to reseed in milder areas. It is a fine back-of-the-border spectacle best seen against a simple and unfussy background such as a hedge or a dark wall (which will also provide the necessary shelter.)

Nicotiana's are scene-stealers in the Shakespeare Garden and always worth considering for your own garden.

Bea Whyld, Rose/Shakespeare Gardens Docent

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