Nicotiana is a wonderful garden plant, its highly scented flowers providing a heady scent on warm summer evenings. I grew a large group of N. sylvestris one year which provided both an eye – catching feature and intoxicating fragrance for my younger daughter’s wedding celebration – truly memorable.
I guess ‘intoxicating’ is the right term as the tobacco plant is one of the most important plant discoveries in history, albeit one whose chief product we have come to understand and increasingly reject as a major cause of disease.
Fortunately though, the ‘baby hasn’t been thrown out with the bath water’ and we can still appreciate it as a garden plant, and its one which I grow each year and place in groups around Old School Garden as well as along the main entrance path at Gressenhall Museum where I volunteer.
Indigenous to the Americas, Australia, south west Africa and the South Pacific, there are various Nicotiana species, all commonly referred to as ‘tobacco plants’, though it is N. tabacum that is still grown worldwide for production of tobacco leaf for cigarettes etc. Nicotiana can be annuals, biennials, perennials or shrubs – some 70 species are grown as ornamentals.
N. sylvestris is a stately plant which looks well at the back of a lightly shaded or sunny border, or grown in bold groups. It’s flower heads seem to explode like a graceful firework. The Royal Horticultural Society has given it its prestigious Award of Garden Merit (AGM). There are many variations in size, colour and fragrance between the species and hybrids. Older heirloom species are often identified by their genus and species name.
Its genus name, designated by Linnaeus in 1753, recognizes Frenchman Jean Nicot, ambassador to Portugal from 1559-1561 who brought powdered tobacco to France to cure the Queen’s son of migraine headaches. Leonhart Fuchs (1501-1566) coined the name ‘Nicotiana’. However, Nicot’s credit as the first to bring the plant to Europe is wrong as it was known in the Low Countries after being brought there by Spanish merchants in the 1540s. Knowledge of the plant by Europeans dates from 1492 when Columbus’s sailors saw it being smoked in Cuba and Haiti.
Many of the species names refer to a characteristic of the plant. Nicotiana alata gets its species name from the Latin word meaning winged, referring to its winged petioles (the stalks attaching the leaf blades to the stem). N. sylvestris, from the Latin sylva, meaning of the forest or woodland, possibly refers to its native habitat. N. langsdorffii was named after G. I. Langsdorf, the Russian Consul in Rio de Janeiro who organized an expedition to explore the inner regions of Brazil in the 1820’s.
Other varieties include:
N. affinis = related to, probably N. alata (= ‘winged’), some use it as a synonym. The ‘Night Scented Tobacco Plant’
N. x sanderae = ‘Sander’s Tobacco’, a group to which most of the newer hybrids belong
N. suaveolens = sweet smelling
Nicotiana can be used as specimen or bedding plants, in borders, woodland gardens or containers. Heights range from less than 1 foot to over 10 feet. They are long-blooming, attractive plants with trumpet-shaped flowers in shades of green, white, red, and pastels. Some species have attractive foliage. They are fairly easy to grow from seed. Contact with the hairy foliage may irritate the skin.
This year I’m growing N. sylvestris in a border along with Verbena bonariensis and Ammi majus – a new combination for me and I’ll show you the results later in the summer!
Sources and further information:
Quizzicals: answers to the two clues given in Plantax 11…
- Where policemen spend their holidays- Copper Beech
- Feline relative - Catkin
..and 2 more cryptic clues to the names of plants, fruit or veg…
- Place in Oxfordshire painted a gaudy colour
- Tie up skinny coward
Special thanks to Les Palmer, whose new book ‘How to Win your Pub Quiz’ was published recently. A great celebration of the British Pub Quiz!
Old School Gardener
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