By Matt Gibson
Flowering tobacco is a lovely ornamental flowering plant that brings color and fragrance to the home garden. Its fuzzy, sticky leaves and stems are capped with clusters of potent, sweet-smelling blossoms. Flowers appear from summer to fall. Depending on the variety, flowering tobacco flowerheads open in the late afternoon to late evening. These plants are fast growers and should be planted during the springtime after the last frost in your area has passed.
The Nicotiana genus is composed of 67 different herbaceous perennial plants and shrubs in the Solanaceae plant family. Among the 67 Nicotiana species are several species that are grown in the garden as ornamentals, including N. sylvestris, N. alata, ‘Lime Green,’ and N. langsdorffii, all of which share the common name flowering tobacco.
Flowering tobacco plants are evening bloomers (vespertines), meaning the flowerheads remain closed during the daytime, and open in the evening to fill the night air with their aromatic sweetness and to provide nectar and pollen to hawkmoths and other pollinating insects. In the temperate climates of USDA hardiness zones nine-A through eleven, flowering tobacco plants can be cultivated as annuals.
Also known as jasmine tobacco, sweet tobacco, and winged tobacco, flowering tobacco plants grow up to three to five feet tall with a one to two foot spread. Flowers appear in various shades of yellowish-green, yellow, white, pink, purple and red. Flowering tobacco is native to Columbia, Uruguay, South Brazil, Northern Argentina, and Paraguay. Flowering tobacco plants are low maintenance, highly fragrant, well suited to containers, and great attractors of birds and pollinating insects.
Varieties of Flowering Tobacco
Of the 67 different species of Nicotiana, these are the most commonly cultivated and most widely known:
Nicotiana alata – The most popular flowering tobacco species, commonly cultivated for ornamental purposes.
Nicotiana attenuata – Commonly called coyote tobacco, this species is a wild flowering tobacco that has been used since 1994 as an ecological model species. This species was used for medicinal purposes by multiple Native American groups and was smoked during ceremonies by the Navajo, Paiute, Hopi, Apache, and several other Native Americans tribes
Nicotiana langsdorffii – This flowering tobacco species hails from Chile and Brazil and is commonly cultivated as an ornamental garden plant.
Nicotiana rustica – Also called Aztec tobacco, the rustica cultivar is the main tobacco variety was first grown in England and Portugal Virginia and is not naturalized in Florida and Virginia, where it is now cultivated.
Nicotiana sylvestris – Another popular flowering tobacco species, which is also known as South American tobacco, and woodland tobacco, this species produces clusters of tiny, tubular, white star-shaped flowers
Nicotiana tabacum – This tobacco species is the main commercially grown tobacco which is produced for the production of tobacco smoking and chewing products. Originally cultivated primarily in France and Spain, the tabacum species has spread across the globe and is cultivated in astounding numbers to meet the demands of smokers and tobacco consumers.
In addition to the 67 species, there are hybrid cultivars of flowering tobacco that are bred to resist pests and diseases and to improve the interesting ornamental features. These varieties are usually bred from the most common flowering tobacco species, N. alata. Two of the hybrid cultivars, Lime Green, and Domino (Series) have won the Garden Merit award from the Royal Horticultural Society. There are a handful of hybrid varieties of flowering tobacco available which gives gardeners a choice when it comes to plant size, flower colors, and other features. A few of our favorites are:
Domino (Series) – The Domino hybrid series produces 14-inch-tall plants in shades of red, white, pink, and rose.
Jasmine – The jasmine flowering tobacco cultivar has fragrant clusters of small greenish-white flowers that are shaped like the jasmine flower from which it draws its name. One of the taller varieties of flowering tobacco, the Jasmine cultivar stands up to five feet tall.
Lime Green – A two foot tall flowering tobacco hybrid with lime green flowers. Cultivated for its unique flower coloration and its strong fragrant appeal.
Nicki Red – This one and a half-foot-tall hybrid displays showy, blood-red blooms.
Perfume Deep Purple – This highly fragrant two-foot-tall cultivar produces vivid purple flowers.
Growing Conditions for Flowering Tobacco
Flowering tobacco plants enjoy full sun to partial shade and at least six hours of sunlight each day. Plant flowering tobacco in moist, well-draining soils that are rich in organic materials, and a pH level between 6.1 and 7.8. Flowering tobacco plants require warm weather and warm soil conditions in order to grow well. Cold, damp soils can lead to root rot and other fungal infections and diseases. Wait until the minimum of two weeks have passed after the last frost in your region before planting and pick out a growing location that receives plenty of sunlight.
As long as good drainage is provided, flowering tobacco plants can adapt to several different soil types but it prefers a soil with plenty of humus. Though flowering tobacco plants don’t like overly cold or hot weather conditions, they are not particular about their humidity preferences. Flowering tobacco plants will die in overly cold conditions and will struggle in extreme heat. The only temperature range where flowering tobacco plants are comfortable is in moderate conditions.
Typically grown as an annual in most regions, the flowering tobacco plant can return each year as a perennial in zones 10 and 11 (and zone 9 for some varieties). If you are outside the range of the plant’s hardiness zone and you still want to grow flowering tobacco as a perennial, cover your plants with a layer of mulch to help protect the plants from incoming icy temperatures. In especially hot climates, be sure to provide your flowering tobacco plants with some afternoon shade to protect them during the hottest times of the day.
How to Plant Flowering Tobacco
To start your flowering tobacco plants, simply scatter seeds in the early weeks of spring and be prepared to wait a while before you can enjoy your flowering tobacco plants in full bloom, as there won’t be flowers until August. If you want to see blooms in a more timely manner, start the tiny seeds indoors eight to ten weeks prior to the final frost and keep the seeds in a room where the temperature is set to 64 degrees Farhenheit, or as close to 64 degrees F as is possible.
Place seeds on the soil with the surface side down because they need sufficient light to germinate properly. In around 10 days, you should notice sprouts and very soon after that, pretty, small rosettes will appear as well. If the seedlings become hungry, they will tell you all about it by yellowing very quickly.
Feed flowering tobacco plants with a weekly dose of fish emulsion and a balanced, water-soluble feed like a 20-20-20 granular mix, each diluted to half strength. Slowly introduce your seedlings to outdoor life, increasing the time of exposure each day until they are outdoors all day long. By the first few days of summer, nicotianas that got a jump start indoors, should be blooming. The majority of nicotiana species are self-seeders.
Care for Flowering Tobacco
Flowering tobacco plants do not require very much care. Keep the plant’s soil consistently and evenly moist, watering whenever the topmost layer of soil feels dry to the touch. Once plants are established, they are relatively drought tolerant. Keep nutrient levels high in the soil you provide. Feed just after planting using a 20-20-20, organic, balanced fertilizer and continue to provide fertilizer every month throughout the entire growing period, which is from early summer to the first fall frost every year.
There is not much pruning required to keep flowering tobacco growing correctly. Simply deadhead spent blooms to simulate additional blooming. Stop deadheading as often when the season is winding down if you want the plant self-seed and come back in the next year.
How to Propagate Flowering Tobacco
To get new flowering tobacco plants, most gardeners grow them from seeds. (You’ll find instructions on collecting seeds to plant the following season in the section titled “How to Harvest Flowering Tobacco.” Left to their own devices, the plants will sow their own next generation without assistance from the gardener.
To grow new plants from seeds, plant them at the end of winter or the beginning of spring in small containers well suited to seedlings, using a seed-starting mixture as the planting medium. Sprinkle an eighth of an inch of soil over the freshly sown seeds, and store the containers in a warm location until germination takes place. The time from planting to germination is normally between two and three weeks. Once there is no danger of frost in the forecast, you can move the young plants into the outdoor garden.
Garden Pests and Diseases of Flowering Tobacco
Tobacco hornworms and flea beetles are the two most concerning pest issues that flowering tobacco plants are subject to. Flea beetle presence can be spotted if you notice a lot of tiny holes in the leaves of your nicotiana plants. Use floating row covers to protect seedlings and young plants. Once plants are established, they seldom experience serious infestations that cause any extensive damage. Laying out diatomaceous earth around your tobacco plants is another effective preventative treatment for flea beetles.
Tobacco hornworms cause tobacco plants to lose around half of their foliage overnight. Green caterpillars with barbed tails which are about the size of a thumb, will be easy to spot, especially after they have fattened themselves up on your plant’s foliage. Unfortunately, killing the hornworms has its drawbacks, as they mature into a beneficial garden insect and prolific pollinator known as the hummingbird moth. If the damage is causing you grief, however, the caterpillars can be picked by hand off the plant while wearing protective gloves. Alternatively, Bacillus thuringiensis can be sprinkled in the area to serve as a natural pesticide.
Flowering tobacco plants don’t have many disease issues, but the plants are susceptible to the tobacco mosaic virus. The disease causes stunted growth and yellowed leaves. If you have plants that are infected by the virus, they should be dug up and burned immediately after being noticed to prevent further spreading.
How to Harvest Flowering Tobacco
The blossoms of your nicotiana plant can be harvested to use in flower arrangements. If you intend to propagate new nicotiana from seeds, you may also consider harvesting the seeds yourself from one season’s batch of nicotiana so you can plant them to grow the next year. You’ll find instructions for each of these projects in the following paragraphs.
Thanks to their elegant pale blooms on tall stalks and heady jasmine-like scent, flowering tobacco blooms are a natural choice for cut flower arrangements. Be gentle when you are working with flowering tobacco and wish to use the blooms, as the flowers are delicate and easy to damage. Use clean, sterilized garden shears, and cut the parts of the plant you wish to use at an angle so the open part of the stem is diagonal. Plan for your cut flowers to last one week if you use them in a floral arrangement. During that week, check over the plants in your arrangement every few days to maintain its appearance. Strip the leaves from the bottom of the stem where the plant sits in the water, as the wet foliage will develop textural issues.
Flowering tobacco seeds are ridiculously easy to harvest. The trick is knowing when the seeds are ripe. There’s no need to count down days to maturity, as the flowers will provide you with a visual signal when they’re ready for the seeds to be collected. Once the blossom has been pollinated, it starts to change color, eventually turning brown and withering even as they remain on the plant. Once the seeds are ripe enough to harvest, the entire seed pod will be brown and have a dry texture, and the bottom end will open up to release the seeds.
Once this happens, all you need to do is hold your hand under the seed pod and shake the stem gently, and the seeds will fall into your hands. Collecting the seeds from just one flowering tobacco plant should net you a couple thousand of the tiny seeds. Spread your harvested seeds out in a cool, dry spot for a few days until they’ve dried completely. Then seal them into an envelope dated and labeled with the plant type for use the following year.
How to Store Flowering Tobacco
Flowering tobacco plants cannot withstand frost, as they are extremely susceptible to cold damage. Protect your plants from chilly weather by covering them with frost fleece or a tarp. In a pinch, you can repurpose materials like tablecloths or bed sheets to keep plants warm during freezing weather. If you’re growing flowering tobacco in a zone where freezing weather is more than an anomaly, you may need to consider moving your plants to a sheltered location like a patio or indoor window to ride out the winter weather. Be sure if you do this to use the hardening off process to get your flowering tobacco plants re-introduced to the outdoor weather so you can avoid problems with sunscald, heat stress, and the like.
It’s easy to understand why flowering tobacco has been a standard for gardeners of all experience and skill levels stretching back through history. Not only does this plant have practical uses in the tobacco industry, it’s low maintenance and easy to care for. In addition, the flowers are absolutely gorgeous, providing plenty of color and shape contrast when they grow next to other garden favorites. And after having read this article, you now know everything you need to know to cultivate happy, healthy flowering tobacco plants of your very own.
Flowering tobacco plants, like all tobacco plants, contain significant amounts of nicotine. Small amounts of nicotine can be mildly toxic to both humans and animals, but in excessive amounts, nicotine can lead to increased heart rate, vomiting, and in rare cases, can even cause comas and death. Though it would be a tough plant to ingest large amounts of on accident, it is still wise to keep pets and children away from the plant.