14 August 2008

Big Floppy Flowers of Tobacco Smell Sweet

Flowering tobacco, Nicotiana alata, has such a beautifully scented flower that it is often called jasmine tobacco. The old fashioned variety has the best scent but new hybrids are more compact.

Nicotiana is classified as an herbaceous perennial in the Solanaceae plant family. Its native home is Brazil and Argentina (zone 10 and 11) so it is a summer pleasure in any area with cold winters. Northeast Oklahoma is zone 7.

Each flower produces a seedpod and each plant makes thousands of seeds. It will re-seed itself for next year in the same location, if the conditions favor it and the seedlings are not pulled up during the early spring weeding.

The seedlings are susceptible to being nibbled on by chewing insects such as beetles and tobacco hornworms, but as the plants mature they are less likely to need protection.

Nicotiana comes from a family of plants with poisonous leaves, including potatoes, eggplant, tomatoes, etc., so restrain from eating flowering tobacco or the leaves of any of its relatives in the deadly nightshade gang.

Wild tobacco, Nicotiana rustica, is also known as Sacred Tobacco. Grown in Mexico and the U.S., rustica was and is used by some native peoples for ceremonial purposes. Now the plant is cultivated worldwide for its nicotine content. At one time the Nicotiana leaves were used to make a poison for arrows.

Sharon Owen, owner of Moonshadow Herb Farm, grows ceremonial tobacco for her clients.
Owen said she grows Huichol (N. langsdorfii), an annual that grows to 3 ft tall and has green-yellow flowers.

Huichol is very potent ceremonial and smoking tobacco, said Owen. Another variety I grow is Hopi (N. rustica). It has a very high nicotine content. Huichol is considered to be one of the first plants ever cultivated.

Owen also said that tobacco needs well-drained soil, even some sand. A heavy feeder, tobacco benefits from a good side dressing of manure.

I always have the 2 ceremonial tobaccos for spring sales, said Owen. I do not grow the ornamental kinds.

The new, ornamental Nicotiana varieties have been bred to be shorter with flowers that open during the day but they are not fragrant.

The flower scent is the main reason to grow the cottage garden varieties Nicotiana alata and Nicotiana Sylvestris. In Victorian times, N. Sylvestris was called woodland tobacco. It was planted along paths in gardens to provide a scented treat during evening walks, when ladies stayed out of the sun.

Their disadvantage is that they open at night and are so tall by the end of the summer that they fall over.

Other scented alata varieties have names such as Nicki Pink, Nicki Green, Nicki Lime etc. Look for intermediate hybrid names like Fragrant Cloud, Grandiflora and Sensation when shopping for seeds.

One unique variety, Nicotiana langsdorffii 'Variegata', has Chartreuse bell-shaped flowers with blue pollen that makes a beautiful contrast.

Nicotiana seeds are very small. They can be sown directly into the garden in spring or started in March indoors. They prefer 64-72-degrees to germinate within 2-weeks.

Last fall a gardener gave me a few seedpods of N. alata. They were so tiny that in March, I laid the sheet of paper towel containing the seeds on moist vermiculite and misted them every day until they were big enough to plant into pots. About 70-plants made it into gardens.

The Alata in the name means winged, referring to the winged petioles. Butterflies and moths love Nicotiana alata; small insects become attached to its sticky leaves. Tobacco hornworms Caterpillars enjoy eating Nicotiana leaves. Jean Nicot introduced the plant in France, so it was named for him.

Sources
-Baker Creek Seeds (http://rareseeds.com), Nicotiana alata seeds, Fragrant Delight and Scentsation Mix 100-seeds $2.25.
-Burpee Seeds, www.burpee.com, Nicotiana Marshmallow with rose, pink and white flowers. 30-seeds, $3.50. Nicki, mixed colors is 100 for $2.75.
-Native Seeds Search, (http://www.nativeseeds.org/v2/content.php?catID=1024), a site full of seed resources. Native Seeds free to Native Americans of the Southwest.
-Seed Savers (http://www.seedsavers.org), 250 night-scented Woodland Tobacco seeds $2.75.
-Swallowtail Garden, www.swallowtailgardenseed.com, Nicotiana x sanderae, 12 inch plant with lightly fragrant blooms in peach, rose, crimson, lime green, pink, purple, red, salmon-pink and white. 100 seeds, $2.25.
-Victory Seed, www.victoryseeds.com, 700 Nicotiana Sylvestris seeds for $3.00. Owen uses this as one of her sources.

I have collected several seedpods this month. If you would like free seeds, send an email to mollyday1@gmail.com and I'll share the bounty!

2 comments:

Ben said...

The only tobacco that I've ever seen grown has been commercially produced fields of the stuff, I've never seen it flower, but the photo's you have taken are quite beautiful!

Growing tobacco at home in Australia without paying the excise tax can land you in jail, as you are required to pay tax on the leaves produced.

Did you know that some of the chemicals used in commercial production of tobacco over here leave entire fields useless for up to 4 years if you want to change crops or even run cows on it? Makes me wonder how people can smoke it.

Molly Day said...

The ornamental varieties are the only ones I could imagine growing.
They probably are not considered taxable since they are not harvested.

I suspect that many many crops strip the land when mega-farms produce them.

The environment suffers when we are interested only in production rather than sustainable, holistic methods.