Wish List: Nicotiana alata x mutabilis “Bella”

Nicotiana alata x mutabilis “Bella”. Click image to link to Select Seeds.

  • Four to six feet tall, half as wide, vase-shaped
  • In hot areas, some afternoon shade. Full sun in the north
  • Regular, moderate watering
  • A fairly rich soil with good drainage
  • Hardy to Zone 8 (10 t0 15F)
  • Native to Brazil

Another member of the Solanaceae family and another wish come true, thanks to Select Seeds. I first learned of this Brazilian flowering tobacco from garden designer Deborah Silver, one of her favorites for large containers. Silver possesses that rare and invaluable gardening trait: restraint. Her gardens, though often formally structured, look natural and peaceful. Her plants look comfortable and healthy.

Nicotiana alata x mutabilis Bella, in France. Click image to link to Au Coeur du Jardin, where they, too, love nicotianas.

I tried the woodland tobacco, Nicotiana sylvestris, in morning sun in the woods out back a couple of years ago, and, as Silver notes, it was an aphid magnet. I don’t think it likes this Kansas clay either, or the humidity. “Bella,” apparently, is tougher, though likely not tough enough to take our full summer sun. Placed at the edges of clearings in the woods, it will have morning sun–maybe a couple more hours than the columbines get each day–and filtered light in the afternoon.

I’m attracted to Bella’s habit, fragrance and flower color. Hot pink and magenta are not colors suited to this particular garden context, where most of the color blobs are blood-red, white and deep orange. But Bella’s flowers, flared trumpets about an inch long and wide, are held in profusion on wiry green stems, opening white and aging to a clear rose-pink. That color transition isn’t a unified choreography, so the blooms are always in differing color transitions–hence the epithet “mutabilis,” the changeling. In bloom, which runs late July to frost here, Bella produces a haze of soft color, one of my favorite garden effects.

Bella has a loose habit, a woman who lets the wind style her hair, though optimal height–four to six feet and half as wide–is best attained in a sheltered position. But, like many plants, if you get them in the ground early enough, its amazing how resilient they become. The incessant Kansas winds promote strong stems, which might be of value to plant breeders. Your new Dahlia hybrid too floppy? Send it to Kansas for a few generations.

Nicotiana alata x mutabilis in one of Deborah Silver’s container plantings. Click image to visit “Dirt Simple,” Silver’s fascinating blog.

Many nicotianas are intensely fragrant in the evenings. Fragrance, I believe, is the reason nicotianas were first brought into the garden. The species plants are rough and weedy, making poor garden subjects–but what a scent! Like jasmine and musk, especially after a hot day. Now, nicotianas are bred for both flower and fragrance, and their looseness of form is more welcome in today’s informal garden style.

Rabbits and deer, I’m happy to report, want nothing to do with nicotiana’s broad and sticky leaves. Even baby rabbits, who readily eat morning glory and datura seedlings–both highly psychoactive–steer clear of tobacco. Too bad humans don’t have such natural wisdom.
All parts of this plant are toxic to humans.Bella is hardy to Zone 8, which makes it an annual in Kansas. Now that the USDA has pushed us to Zone 6, I’ll probably try to over-winter a couple of plants against South-facing masonry with a heap of mulch, but I have low expectations.
Like most of the Solanaceae, flowering tobaccos like sun, heat, deep soil and regular water. I’ll put clumps of five in the sunny verges of clearings in the woods, maybe front them with Datura inoxia and Mirabilis longiflora “Fairy Trumpets,” a white, trumpet-flowered Four-o-Clock to echo Bella’s trumpets overhead. I’ll stick a plant by the front steps, too, where it can sprawl on the banister and scent the night.
  1. Sima said:

    This blog was… how do I say it? Relevant!
    ! Finally I have found something which helped me.
    Thanks a lot!

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