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How to Grow Nicotiana (Flowering Tobacco)

Caren White is a Master Gardener and instructor at Home Gardeners School. She has been associated with Rutgers Gardens for over a decade.

Nicotiana alata is the most popular ornamental species.

Nicotiana alata is the most popular ornamental species.

When I am planning my flower gardens, I look for height, color, leaf and flower shape to lend variety. The nicotianas, or flowering tobaccos, have wonderful tubular shaped flowers that add texture to my garden.

What is Nicotiana?

Nicotiana (Nicotiana spp.) is a genus of flowering plants that are native to Africa, the South Pacific including Australia and North and South America. They are members of the nightshade family which includes peppers, potatoes, eggplants and tomatoes. Although the nicotianas are called flowering tobacco, none of them are the tobacco that is smoked in cigars, cigarettes and pipes. That tobacco, N. tabacum, is a manmade hybrid that does not grow in the wild.

The three most popular nictotianas that are grown as ornamentals are N. alata, N. langsdorffii, and my personal favorite, N. sylvestris, also called woodland tobacco.

Nicotiana sylvestris, also known as woodland tobacco, is my favorite.  Its flowers look like fireworks.

Nicotiana sylvestris, also known as woodland tobacco, is my favorite. Its flowers look like fireworks.

How to Grow Nicotiana

Nicotianas are hardy in zones 9 – 11. Most gardeners grow them as annuals. They reach 3 – 5 feet in height depending on the species. Plan on staking these tall plants because they have a tendency to blow over on windy days. Modern hybrids are shorter, about 2 feet tall, and don’t need staking.

Nicotianas grow best in full sun but will tolerate a little shade. Rich, well-drained soil is a must. Try working some compost into your soil to ensure that it will drain and contain enough nutrients.

About mid-summer, your plants will start to look tired and not bloom as well. Prune them back by about a third and add some slow release fertilizer that is formulated for flowering plants. That will give them the boost they need to start growing and producing flowers again.

The flowers on all nicotianas are long and tubular. The flowers open in the late afternoon and remain open during the night. They have a lovely fragrance to lure the nocturnal moths which pollinate them.

N. alata flowers come in white, pink, red and lime green.

N. langsdorffii flowers are shorter and fatter than their alata cousins. They come in one color, lime green.

N. sylvestris is the largest of the three ornamental nicotianas. To my mind, it is spectacular. The flowers, which are white, are longer than alata. They grow from the top of the plants looking like fireworks.

All three readily self-seed in your garden. You will probably want to deadhead them, only leaving a few flowers to produce seed since each plant produces thousands of seeds.

Nicotiana langsdorffii has shorter, fatter flowers.

Nicotiana langsdorffii has shorter, fatter flowers.

How to Grow Nicotiana From Seed

Nicotiana is easy to grow from seed. You can start your seeds either outside in your garden or indoors to give your plants a headstart in the spring.

Outdoors

Nicotiana needs very rich soil so work some compost into your garden before sowing your seeds. In the spring, after your last frost, you can surface sow your seeds. They need sunlight to germinate, so don’t cover them. Gently press them into the soil to make sure that they have good contact with the soil. I like to water before I sow seeds, especially seeds that are sown on the surface of the soil, because if I wait to water after I sow my seeds, the force of the water will cause them to float away.

Keep the soil moist. Germination should occur in 10 to 20 days. Thin your seedlings to 18 – 24 inches apart if you are growing the larger species, 12 – 18 inches apart if you are growing the smaller, modern hybrids.

Indoors

Start your seeds indoors 6 – 8 weeks before your last frost. Surface sow the seeds. Don’t cover them. They need sunlight to germinate. Gently press them into the soil to make sure that they have good contact. I like to water before I sow seeds, especially seeds that are sown on the surface of the soil, because if I wait to water after I sow my seeds, the force of the water will cause them to float away.

Keep the soil moist. Germination should occur in 10 to 20 days. You can transplant your seedlings outdoors into your garden after the last frost. Space them 18 – 24 inches apart if you are growing the larger species. Space the smaller hybrids 12 – 18 inches apart.

© 2020 Caren White

Comments

Caren White (author) on August 09, 2020:

Everyone has a green thumb! We all learn by making mistakes. My motto is: The best thing about a garden is next year.

Caren White (author) on August 09, 2020:

They will look wonderful in your garden.

Abby Slutsky from LAFAYETTE HL on August 08, 2020:

I do not have a green thumb, but your directions were so clear that I am sure I coud grow them if I tried. Thanks for sharing.

Danny from India on August 08, 2020:

Glad to learn about growing Nicotiana plants. Thye looks so beautiful and the drooping bell shape gives it a special effect.

Thanks for writing Caren.