The National Garden Bureau has proclaimed 2009 as the year of Nicotiana. You may know this plant as Flowering Tobacco.
For years I thought Nicotiana and another plants with similar flowers known as ''four o'clocks'' were the same plant. Four o'clocks were a favorite plant of my aunt's. Years ago, she gave me seeds she collected from her own heirloom plants and told me to put them in a spot that got a fair amount of sun, but not too much.
I planted the seeds beneath the electric and gas meters on the side of the house hoping they would work as a cover up, but they did much more. They not only hid the meters from view, but each afternoon their flowers would emerge and stayed open long into the night. By morning, the flowers closed and stayed that way until the sun went over the house again the next afternoon.
I don't know why I thought this plant was related to Nicotiana. Four o'clocks are Mirabilis jalapa and of an entirely different genus than flowering tobacco. It is possible it stems from the fact that the native flowering tobacco (Nicotiana alata) also blooms later in the day and has trumpet-shaped flowers, similar to four o'clocks. Such is the confusion of using common names for plants. Nicotiana sylvestris, a woodland plant that blooms earlier in the day, was used during Victorian times to line walkways and to welcome guests with its fragrance.
While those older varieties were large plants, newer cultivars have been developed that stay around 12- to 18-inches tall.
The NGB chose Nicotiana as its featured plant this year due to its appeal and fragrance, and it is related to the more well-known tobacco, Nicotiana tabacum. Nicotiana is a member of the nightshade family of plants and is most closely related to the petunia. Nightshades also include tomatoes, potatoes and eggplant in our vegetable gardens.
The flowers are large trumpet-shaped blooms that, when opened, resemble five-pointed stars. Most are in shades of red, pink, purple, yellow and green.
Green flowers have become popular in recent years with the cultivation of 'Limelight' hydrangeas, 'Green Envy,' coneflower, zinnias and many others. The trend has even affected Nicotiana with the emergence of N. langsdorffii, a lime green variety that would look remarkable planted with deep purple coral bells or 'purple ruffles' or 'dark opal' basil.
Nicotiana are grown as annuals in our northeast Ohio gardens but reseed prolifically, although hybrid varieties need to be reseeded each year.
Nicotiana grows best in full sun but will tolerate a bit of shade. They grow easily from seed, which is very fine. When planting, be sure to protect your seeds from the wind or they will quickly blow away. Sow the seeds, after danger of frost has past, directly on the soil surface without covering as they need light to germinate. Spray with a fine mist to keep the seeds from blowing away and keep the soil moist, but not muddy, for a week or so until they germinate.
Seeds also can be sown indoors a few weeks before setting plants outside. They will need moist, well-drained soil and good light, preferably a grow light or a fluorescent fixture with one cool and one white light installed.
Before transplanting into the garden, be sure to harden off the plants first to acclimate them to the outdoors. Bring them out for a few hours each day, lengthening their time outside each day for a week. Place them in a shady location until they are acclimated to the outdoors.
The National Garden Bureau recommends planting Nicotiana with climbing moonflower, those wonderful four o'clocks and another tropical plant we treat as an annual, angel's trumpet, or Datura.
They also make good cut flowers for indoor arrangements, and in the garden they attract hummingbirds and butterflies.
If your plans include a scented garden, you won't want to forget Nicotiana.
Evanoff is a Master Gardener with The Ohio State University Extension of Trumbull County. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.