The white flowers of jasmine tobacco (Nicotiana alata) brighten a garden and exude a sweet fragrance at night. The author’s garden features a sweep of this plant along a set of stone steps.
I quit smoking years ago, but I still don’t plan to give up tobacco. Not flowering tobacco, anyway. This hard-working genus (Nicotiana spp. and cvs.) adds so much to my garden that I can’t imagine being without it. I’m not talking about the cute little hybrids offered at garden centers. The breeder’s art may have created a richer color palette and compact plants with more profuse flowers, but only at the expense of the stature, sheer exuberance, and intense fragrance that makes the parent species so endearing. The kids are OK, but it’s their parents—the unadulterated, straight-species nicotianas—that bring wow-power to any garden scene. Yet, somehow, the best of the flowering tobacco bunch are unknown to many gardeners. Most don’t even rate a common name. They’re usually just called nicotianas.
Most species nicotianas are short-lived tender perennials easily grown as hardy annuals. They add bold architectural presence and complement virtually any setting. They excel at bridging gaps between young perennials and shrubs and filling holes left by spring-blooming, summer-dormant plants such as spring bulbs or oriental poppies (Papaver orientale). Depending on the species, you can get sweet-smelling fragrance, colorful flowers, or fleshy blue-green foliage. My favorites are also sizable; I don’t bother with any that won’t get at least 3 feet tall. Most are tough enough to march right through light frosts, so they help carry the garden’s banner of beauty into late fall. They thrive in full sun or part shade and are so easy to introduce that all you need do is scatter seed in early spring.