In a perfect world — or at least, in a perfect garden — the smell of jasmine flowers would perfume the air as dusk fills the corners with shadows. That’s just the scent I expect from a few plants of annual Nicotiana alata (syn. N. affinis) carefully placed for maximum effect next summer. Making further plans for the empty corners in my garden, next month I’ll be starting seeds for the deeply perfumed species ancestor of colourful nicotine bedding plants sold in garden centres. Not to take anything away from the many dwarf nicotine cultivars, but this taller, white-flowered progenitor has a lot to offer.
Tall N. alata (N. affinis at stokeseeds.com) grows best in partial shade to full sun, although it does well in my garden when planted in bright shade on the north wall of the house. It grows about 40 inches (1 m) tall (slightly taller in direct sunlight), and the central flowering stem rises in mid June from a basal rosette 18 inches (45 cm) wide. At full height in late summer, tall nicotine has a slightly leaning posture that’s part of its charm, and its natural delicacy doesn’t adapt well to staking. Far better to let several plants touch their slightly felty stems and provide mutual support, or plant them alongside shrubs for a steadying influence.
The central stems carry long side shoots like candelabra, with flowers along their length. In bright sunlight the flowers often droop and close their petals, and then open widely into glowing white stars as night falls. The flowers have a long tube culminating in a flaring white star, and jasmine-like scent begins puffing out at dusk. This is a plant for the night garden, and for situating near windows and doors, allowing the fragrance to float inside. Once you smell this perfume, you’ll always want to have it.
Many dwarf cultivars have been bred from species like N. alata, and in the process the perfume has been obscured or even lost. A new selection, F1 Perfume Series, is a colourful group growing 16 to 20 inches (40 to 50 cm) tall with consistent scent. Perfume Purple and Perfume Red (veseys.com) are singled out for their highly saturated colour. However, none of the dwarf cultivars measures up to the intensity of the nightly perfume produced by N. alata and other species.
If you want to make a daytime spectacle in bright sun, it’s worth saving central space in planting beds for N. sylvestris, another tall scented Nicotiana species similar to N. alata. N. sylvestris has an exotic tropical style, with a fountain of drooping white tubular flowers spouting out the top—definitely not for hiding in corners! This is a decorative plant, enough so that one may stand alone as a specimen, or a group can fill and dominate an island bed. N. sylvestris comes on strong in late summer, just when many perennials are finished, and it’s smart to grow a few with perennials to keep the scene alive until autumn. The cultivar N. sylvestris ‘Only the Lonely’ (swallowtailseeds.com) is slightly taller and stout, requiring no staking.
Once you’ve had tall Nicotiana in the garden, you’ll likely find self-sown seedlings the following year. If you’re purchasing your first packet of seed this year, press the seeds into soilless mix in late February, keeping them warm and humid until germination, and grow under lights or on a bright windowsill. Allow the seedlings to grow on until they have three sets of leaves, then prick them out into individual pots. Plant the seedlings outdoors in May, when all danger of frost has passed. By midsummer, be ready to swoon.
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