Saturday 1 October 2016

Sweet smell of an unruly success

Gerry Daly

Published 17/07/2016 | 02:30

TOBACCO FLOWER: From the warm parts of South America, this plant is popular due to a trend for more natural gardening
TOBACCO FLOWER: From the warm parts of South America, this plant is popular due to a trend for more natural gardening

Most summer bedding flowers are nice and neat. For instance, bedding begonias, petunias and busy lizzie all make tidy, rounded and gently expanding mounds. Tobacco flower is not like that. It has a certain leggy unruliness to its shape and growth pattern, and some kinds can be over one metre tall, which is not the usual bedding plant dimensions.

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These qualities are finding favour with lots of people as the trend towards a more natural style of gardening continues to gather pace. Not that these are natural flowers, in the sense that they are native wildflowers, because they are not, they come from warm parts of South America and are not hardy here, but they have a naturalistic appearance.

There are a few forms of tobacco flower, some small and some taller. The main bedding kinds are smallish, compact forms bred for use as bedding plants. Depending on the variety, their height is 40cm to a metre. Even at the lower limit, they are already taller than most normal bedding flowers. These are annuals, raised from seeds sown with some extra heat in a propagator in March and moved into cell trays or small pots to grow on.

The tobacco flower is botanically known as nicotiana and they are closely related to the smoking tobacco, which is Nicotiana tabacum. Even this species has sweet-smelling flowers to attract pollinators, mostly night-flying moths.

Nicotiana of all kinds has a tendency to open its flowers in the evening to release powerfully sweet scent, but modern bedding types have been bred to stay open more by day.

The colours of the flowers are distinctive. The shades are wine-red, pink, lime, peach and all sorts of intermediate tones, mostly deep pastel colours, many with a touch of green as they open from green buds. They are nearly always sold as mixed shades because the colours associate so well with each other. The flowering starts with quite young plants in late June or July and continues into September. The flower heads are carried well clear of the broad leaves, and the leaves of the flowering kinds are much smaller than the very large leaves of the smoking kind.

There is a species of tobacco flower, Nicotiana sylvestris, which is about 1.5 metres tall, sometimes more, with large basal and stem leaves and heads of narrow tubular dangling white flowers. This is grown for its showy large foliage and flower stems and its sweet scent in the evening although it may stay open on dull days or in light shade. It is grown as a biennial in warm gardens but it is not hardy. Grow in any good soil with some organic matter that does not dry out too much.

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