Flowering tobacco bring smoldering delight to your garden

To some gardeners, it might seem like flowering tobacco should come with a few warning labels. It's part of the genus Nicotiana, which includes the tobacco cultivated for use in cigarettes. Flowering tobacco is also part of the nightshade family, which includes several toxic plants.

Flowering tobacco does contain nicotine and other alkaloids which render it toxic, and it should be kept away from pets and children. But it also produces long-lasting blooms of colorful trumpet-shaped flowers, making it ideal for ornamental display in the garden.

The plant is an annual which produces sticky foliage and flowers which will persist through the fall. The Cornell University Cooperative Extension says the plant grows up to four feet tall, with most varieties producing white, pink, green, red, or yellow flowers which open at night or on cloudy days.

The flowers do a good job of attracting hummingbirds, butterflies, and moths. Jamie McIntosh, writing for the home design site The Spruce, says flowering tobacco has a fragrance similar to petunias, which are also included in the nightshade family.

Flowering tobacco can be transplanted into the garden, but it is best to grow taller varieties from seed. The Missouri Botanical Garden says seeds can be started indoors six to eight weeks before the last frost of the spring, but can also be sown outdoors after the last frost.

Seeds are very tiny, so they shouldn't be planted too deeply. McIntosh says seeds should be pressed lightly into the soil and spaced after 12 inches apart. They should be left uncovered so they are exposed to sunlight. Shawna Coronado, a professional gardening writer, says one option is to mix seeds with sand so they can be spread more easily.

The plant requires full sun or partial shade, along with well-drained soil. The soil should have high levels of compost or other organic material, and will tolerate both slightly acidic and slightly alkaline pH levels. The Missouri Botanical Garden says the seeds should not be placed near other members of the nightshade family, including vegetables such as tomatoes or peppers, since diseases can be more easily transmitted among plants.

Flowering tobacco should receive an inch of water per week, either through rainfall or irrigation. McIntosh says fertilizer can be added immediately after planting and once a month thereafter.

Periodically check the plant to make sure no problems are developing. Flowering tobacco can easily be killed off in cold weather, and may fare poorly in extremely hot temperatures as well. The Missouri Botanical Garden says taller varieties often need to be staked to keep them from toppling over.

The plant is susceptible to tobacco mosaic virus, as well as pests such as aphids, spider mites, flea beetles, and tobacco hornworms. Aphids and spider mites can be deterred with insecticidal soap. McIntosh says floating row covers can keep flea beetles at bay, while tobacco hornworms can be picked off or killed with the insecticide Bt.

Removing spent flowers can help prolong blooms throughout the growing season. Flowering tobacco will self-seed, so the plant may simply grow again in the same spot the following year. Seeds can also be saved to start anew in the following year.

Flowering tobacco will work well in several parts of the garden. Coronado says they can be massed together, planted in containers, or used as borders. The Missouri Botanical Garden says the plant can also be located near frequently trafficked areas—such as patios, decks, or windows—to take advantage of the flowers' scent.

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