The National Garden Bureau has designated 2009 as the Year of the Nicotiana.

The National Garden Bureau has designated 2009 as the Year of the Nicotiana.

The National Garden Bureau recognizes an annual flower and vegetable to stimulate interest in the plants, though many gardeners typically grow many of the past designees.

Nicotiana (pronounced ni-co-she-AA-nah) is a little different. Plants have been staples in gardens for close to two centuries, but never in the forefront like marigolds, petunias, geraniums or zinnias. Even All America Selection winners don’t seem to give the plant much more credibility.

That’s too bad, because few more carefree garden annuals can be found.

Looking at the name, you can get a sense of a more familiar relative: smoking tobacco. Gardeners, being a particular lot, take to calling the plant by the scientific name instead of the heirloom name of “flowering tobacco.” No sense ruining a good thing with a politically incorrect name.

The two plants belong to the same genus Nicotiana. They, in turn, belong to the solanaceae or nightshade family, which contains petunias, tomatoes, potatoes, eggplant and peppers.

The name recognizes French ambassador Jean Nicot, who supposedly brought powdered tobacco to help ease the headaches of the queen’s son. Back then, plants were thought to possess magical curative powers. Some actually worked. Some just deadened the pain.

Two common garden nicotianas are N. alata and N. sylvestris. The latter refers to its native habitat of growing in the woods. The former refers to the winged petioles on the leaves.

With all the plant breeding these days, it’s possible your garden plant is a combination of several species.

In the 1800s, the plants were found in just about any halfway decent flower garden, providing fragrance in the evenings when the flowers opened. The original species grew to 4 or 5 feet tall, often requiring staking in areas with wind or rainstorms.

Some of those original species are still on the market and make a great background for other annuals and perennials in the flower border. They may require staking or caging, but if you interplant them among other plants, neighboring specimens can provide support.

Old-type nicotianas were basically white, but heavily scented. Flowers were more tubular with the five-pointed star fused petals at the end. Hummingbirds and butterflies were popular visitors.

You could find 20 to 30 flowers in a cluster, often with two or more flowers open at the same time. Unlike day lilies, flowers would last up to a week before falling off.

There have been many breeding attempts to develop shorter, sturdier plants and additional colors.

Over the past 10 years, All America Selections has given its top award to two nicotianas — Avalon Bright Pink in 2001 and Perfume Deep Purple in 2006.

The purple plants grew about 2 feet tall, with a spread about 18 inches. Flowers opened in the evening, providing additional enjoyment when entertaining after dusk. The downside was that the flower’s color made it invisible once the sun set.

Avalon Bright Pink was one of those “wow” plants when it came out. Flowers were a bright pink with a lighter, almost white color on the petal’s reverse side. Plants topped out at a foot with an equal spread. They were also fragrant, but visible in the evening.

You can find other cultivars such as Tinkerbell, which has lime green trumpets with purple petals.

Most of the plants do best in full sun, though they will flower if given afternoon shade.

Container gardeners will find the shorter types more suited for patio pots. Some of the taller plants do well if surrounded by other plants that prevent them from falling over.

Most gardeners will buy transplants in the spring, setting the plants outside after the frost danger passes. A warm soil is preferred, so don’t jump the gun and plant too soon.

The seeds are one of the smallest on the market. It might be easier to mix the seed with sand and then scatter the sand on the starting medium.

As the name would imply, the plant contains nicotine, which is why chewing insects such as Japanese beetles, or four-legged creatures such as rabbits and deer, seldom bother it. The plant is classified as poisonous and should not be eaten by anyone.

David Robson is a horticulture educator for the University of Illinois Extension.
For more gardening information or for your local extension unit office, go to www.extension.uiuc.edu/mg. The Sangamon-Menard Unit Sangamon County office can be
reached at 782-4617.