By Penny Pawl, UC Master Gardener of Napa County
Over the many years that I have been a Master Gardener, I have heard people talk about Nicotiana in the garden, but I didn't pay much attention. Then fellow Master Gardeners Gary Thompson and Noble Hamilton gave me a Nicotiana plant a couple of years ago. That's when the love affair began.
This plant is a member of the nightshade family (Solanaceae), a group that also includes tomatoes, potatoes, peppers and eggplant. It is one of the largest plant families.
Nicotiana is a showstopper in the garden as it grows about five feet tall and has beautiful blooms on the top of the stems. The white flowers grow in a cluster and they shine. The flowers set an enormous amount of tiny seeds.
Nicotiana's main pollinators are moths which come out at night, when the scent of the flowers is strongest.
In addition to the large white Nicotiana, I have a smaller version with green flowers (Nicotiana alata). It stays about two feet tall and is covered with small green blossoms.
Nicotiana is native to tropical and subtropical areas of North and South America. Some varieties also come from Australia. Although they are tropical, in my garden they have not frozen and are perennials. In cold climates they are treated as annuals and replanted each year.
Nicotiana plants bloom in a range of colors, including pink, pink with white, and rose. The plants are easily propagated by seed, and there are many seed sources online.
The seeds pods contain millions of tiny black seeds. I cut back a Nicotiana plant earlier this year and got countless black seeds in my hair and ears. The leaves are sticky, too, so I had leaves in my hair and ears as well. Luckily, they washed off. After the fires last year, the leaves were covered with soot and other debris floating in the air. That mess did not wash off, but those old leaves were eventually replaced by new ones.
If you deadhead the plant religiously, it will rebloom through summer and into fall. However, I would recommend not putting any of the spent blossoms in your compost pile to avoid spreading Nicotiana everywhere. You might end up with a Nicotiana forest.
The garden Nicotiana (also known as “flowering tobacco”) is related to the tobacco grown for cigarettes, but all parts of flowering tobacco are poisonous.
If you plant Nicotiana in a bed, put it in the middle or rear of the bed. It gets tall and as more branches form, it tends to bend over the plants around it. In my garden it does not demand a lot of water. It gets drip irrigation about once a week and worm compost for fertilizer once or twice a year. When winter arrives, I cut the plant back to about two feet.
If you purchase Nicotiana seed, sow it in seed-starting mix and watch the tiny seedlings emerge. Or you can scatter the seed directly in the planting bed. In either case, you will probably need to thin the seedlings as the plants require a lot of space when mature.
Next workshop: “Sustainable Vegetable Growing” (Four-Part Series) on Sundays February 23, March 1, March 8 and March 15, from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m., at the University of California Cooperative Extension, 1710 Soscol Avenue, Napa. For more details & online registration go to Online registration (credit card only) or call 707-253-4221.
The UC Master Gardeners of Napa County are volunteers who provide UC research-based information on home gardening and answer your questions. To find out more about upcoming programs or to ask a garden question, visit the Master Gardener website (http://napamg.ucanr.edu) or call (707) 253-4221 between 9 a.m. and noon on Mondays, Wednesdays or Fridays.