Annuals A - Z: All About Annual Flowers & Plants, by Graham Rice

Discovering Annuals, by Graham Rice

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Nicotiana (Flowering tobacco)

Gardeners with an interest in tobacco fall into two groups. A few, determined to ruin their health with the least possible expense in taxation, grow tobacco to smoke. The rest of us, intent on enjoying our gardens into old age, grow only the ornamental nicotianas and these represent a rare example in which the plant breeders' enthusiasm for reducing the height of their new varieties has actually led to a more versatile plant.

For many years the tall and swaying 'Sensation' and 'Evening Fragrance' types were the standard, reaching 3ft/90cm or more they tend to close their flowers by day, the petals relaxing to limpness then coming alive to release their exotic scent only in the evening. They can be spectacular, given space they develop, and their colours show a strange luminosity in evening light. Sadly, they are available only in the unpredictable mixtures rarely required in the borders of colour conscious gardeners.

It is true that the blend of shades is less offensive than in many mixtures - the soft reds and purples, the pinks, mauves and white together with the lack of brilliant scarlets or livid purples harmonise rather than clash in a mass planting. But for planned associations sow early, move the individual seedlings steadily on into 5in/12.5cm pots then by planting time in late spring the first flowers should be open and each plant can be given a place with the appropriate neighbours.

Two valuable single colours have long had their fanciers, the pure white and the lime green. White comes in the form of N. alata, also known as N. affinis, an elegant plant with its height, size of foliage and flowers, degree of branching and the quantity of flowers open at any one time all in scale and not so tall as to be out of place in smaller gardens.

Although reaching 21/2-3ft/75-90cm, it has foliage which is sufficiently discreet to allow it to be grown in large tubs, its pure white flowers have boldness enough to make a visual impact and a scent to add its own intoxication to a relaxing drink on a summer's evening. Placing a clump in the sunny angle of a hedge in a city garden ensures that the flowers are set off well and the scent held in the evening air.

The modern F1 hybrid types have let us down in the greens, 'Domino Lime' and 'Havana Lime' are a thin and watery shade, quite without passion. Most of the old open pollinated types are stronger in colour but even these vary so search out, please, the shimmery, more truly lime green found in the 'Unwins Lime Green Strain'; its depth of colour is outstanding.

British plant breeders have led the way in the development of F1 hybrid nicotianas and in the Domino Series, at 12-15in/30-28cm, have reduced their height while sacrificing relatively little of their natural elegance. But once their height is reduced we tend to look down on the flowers from above rather than view them from the side. So the breeders have created individual flowers whose flat face is angled upwards so we see the most colour as we look down. Very neat. The flowers also stay open all day but the scent, sad to say, is much reduced.

In some series the height has been further reduced - and the elegance lost. There is temptation in 'Havana Appleblossom', a unique white with pink backs to the petals but it's too dumpy and the flowers are floppy and untidy.

No, the star of all the modern nicotianas is surely 'Domino Salmon Pink'. A soft yet vivid shade, it makes a tasteful pastel planting amongst the small silver leaves of Plecostachys serpyllifolia and the stiff, silver and white spikes of Salvia farinacea 'Strata'. For a bolder look, it gleams in front of purple Cotinus coggygria 'Notcutts Variety' or behind the new the American dark-leaved heucheras like 'Stormy Seas' yet is never garish.

But two unaltered wild species remain the most useful and effective of the whole group. The dainty, waisted green bells of N. langsdorfii (portrait) (plant grouping) on their slender wiry stems are spectacular in a fluttery, airy mass although I will not be growing the variegated form, 'Cream-Splash'; once was enough.

Altogether more majestic is N. sylvestris - occasionally diminished by a strangely appealing yet entirely redundant cultivar name - 'Only the Lonely'. The great, soft, rather sticky, pale green foliage is impressive from early on but its vital supporting midrib can be damaged in strong winds and then the leaf flops.

This is a handsome plant, again a perennial in mild areas, and a fine back-of-the-border spectacle best seen against a simple and unfussy background such as a hedge or a dark wall (which will also provide the necessary shelter), or up into a clear blue sky.

Finally, it is only fair to say that smoking tobacco, N. tabacum, does have an acceptable use. It makes a tall and bold specimen, its soft and luxuriant foliage is imposing long before the flower spike stretches and if kept free from drought and the new pestilence, tobacco blue mould, it stays impressive until the flowers fade.

Nicotiana A-Z
©copyright 1999 Graham Rice. All Rights Reserved. All Images Digitally Watermarked.

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