Nicotiana alata (jasmine tobacco) has bigger flowers than some tobaccos do, so you can see right into their innards when they are fully open. You do have to get underneath them to do that, though, since they hang gracefully down from the stem. (Just another good reason for putting them in a container on your porch, where they will be higher up and you will be sitting down.)
They’re great commuter plants: Nicotia alata opens in the evening, so it can greet you on the porch each evening with freshly-opened flowers that spread a light, sweet scent. Some people also recommend planting night-fragrant plants under bedroom windows. Near an outdoor summertime bed would be another good place.
N. alata is one of those rewarding plants that takes almost no energy. And yet it comes back year after year, through hard freezes (to 15 degrees F/-9.5 C) and through summers that go well over 100 degrees F ( 38 C). Jasmine tobacco mostly blooms in early summer for me, with a few scattered blooms here and there through the rest of the season. Other kinds of fragrant night flowers (including other tobaccos) tend to get going later in the season, so N. alata fills a gap.
After years of trying to grow different tobaccos from seed (JL Hudson has an enticing assortment of varieties bred for both smoking and ornament) and failing utterly, I got my jasmine tobacco plant from Select Seeds. It arrived, took off, and is still doing nicely some years hence. I put it in a self-watering container in semi-shade where it seems to be happy without any extra attention from me: I give it the same fertilizing treatment that the whole garden gets, and I water it. Voila tout.
If anyone out there has successfully grown tobacco from seed, or knows of someone who has, I’d be interested to hear. Trying and failing multiple times has given me a new respect for tobacco farmers.
While tobacco gets its share of criticism (I admit I don’t like being shut in smoky rooms myself), it can be useful in the garden as well as pretty. Ornamental tobaccos have pretty much the same set of alkaloids as smoking tobaccos, although as you can see their leaves are nowhere near as dense. Still, you can use them the way the Victorians did, as an all-purpose pesticide (tobacco was the DDT of the Victorian age). Soak the dried leaves in water to make a kind of tea, then spray on plants to kill and repel bugs. (If you have bugs on your tobacco plants, you’re on your own.) Civilized smokers—people who smoke outside—can follow one of the pleasant traditions of the 1930s: smoking near the rose bushes. The tobacco-laden exhalations help the roses keep clear of fungal diseases.
This picture of the newly-opened blooms shows the greenish tint they have before they mature, also some of the hairiness that I find so appealing in a plant. Maturing, for a tobacco flower, happens in what humans would call a blip: these blooms will last only through the next morning. The following night will bring fresh blooms.
Evening’s also a good time to see the silhouette of the blooms that are coming on and the blooms that are passing away, with the little hairs glowing like a halo around each one. (The little brown-red flower behind it is a California figwort, which I must post about sometime, another great plant.)
Jasmine tobacco gives sensuous pleasure along with intimations of mortality. I think most sensuous pleasures are sweetened by the scent of approaching death. But few pleasures are so carefree as jasmine tobacco.