Text by Caleb Melchior for the May/June 2017 issue of Horticulture.
Do you buy your flowering tobacco in a six-pack? As a kid, I was always intrigued by those squat plants with starry crimson, ice-green and cream flowers. Their deep-throated blooms are well adapted for their pollinators, hawkmoths and hummingbirds. When I reached my teens, some of the trendy weird species piqued my interest—the sexy lime-green Landsdorff’s tobacco (Nicotiana langsdorffii) with its bright blue stamens, as well as the strange rust-brown interspecific selections with delicious names like ‘Hot Chocolate’ and ‘Chocolate Smoke’. But these days I’m all excited about the blushing ornamental tobacco (Nicotiana mutabilis).
A recently identified species from Brazil (it wasn’t officially described until 2002), N. mutabilis is a dramatic plant with low, paddle-shape basal foliage and open, wiry branching. The plants bedeck themselves with hundreds of dangling trumpets, slowly at first, but with increasing speed over the course of the summer. Each flower opens white and ages to magenta over the seven-day course of its life. This species is floriferous, but it offers little fragrance. It works well in plantings of many different styles. Its diffuse habit melds into naturalistic grass plantings, contrasts eloquently with flamboyant tropical foliage and weaves through overstuffed container plantings.
Like other flowering tobaccos, N. mutabilis grows well in bright light—full sun in the North and afternoon shade in the South. Moderately fertile soil and regular moisture will ensure that the plants grow and flower heavily. You’ll most likely have to start from seed, although some forward-thinking garden centers and online nurseries do sell plants. Start the seed indoors in warm conditions or direct-sow outside after all threat of frost has passed and the soil has warmed. They might not be the trendiest plants at the moment, but try these flowering tobaccos anyway, for a sensational all-summer floral display.
Caleb Melchior is a Missouri-born landscape architect based in the Southeast.