Attraction of fragrant nicotiana makes twilight magical in garden

Posted Jan. 09, 2009, at 5:15 p.m.

There at dusk I found you, walking and weeping

Upon the broken flags,

Where at dusk the dumb white nicotine awakes and utters her fragrance

In a garden sleeping.

From “There At Dusk I Found You,” a poem by Edna St. Vincent Millay

One of the joys of Marjorie’s garden in summer is sitting on the porch steps at dusk, watching the sphinx moths. Looking like hummingbirds in size and motion, these crepuscular insects are drawn to the garden by a heady jasminelike perfume, a scent produced within the white, tubular blossoms of flowering tobacco (nicotiana). I watch the moths as they dart from bloom to bloom, hovering at the mouth of each flower just long enough to sip its sweet nectar. As darkness begins to settle over the garden, the tobacco flowers glow, releasing the last of the day’s warm light, and the sphinx moths become flitting shadows in the gloaming.

I have always grown this self-sowing summer annual in my gardens. I remember walking through my Orono garden surrounded by hundreds of white flowers, some clustered at the tips of waist-high stems that arched over garden paths, their long sticky leaves brushing against my bare legs, others borne on shorter, thinner stems that twisted upward through the branches of red-osier dogwoods and between clumps of daylilies and violets. All of these plants traced their origin to a small planting made years earlier, a dozen plants purchased at a local garden center. Seeds produced by those first plants were scattered by wind and water throughout the garden and all I had were rogue seedlings growing where I did not want them, leaving the rest to entertain the sphinx moths and me.

I was pleased to learn this past week that the National Garden Bureau has declared 2009 the Year of Nicotiana, calling attention to a genus of lovely heirloom flowers that is gaining recognition among today’s gardeners. The older species, such as the ones that I love to grow, are valued for their impressive stature and deliciously scented flowers that open in early evening, while the newer hybrids offer smaller, more compact plants with abundant flowers that bloom throughout the summer. Unfortunately, hybrid producers traded fragrance for small size; many of the newer hybrids do not attract sphinx moths.

The first flowering tobacco to gain garden popularity was nicotiana alata.

Introduced into garden cultivation in the United States and England in the early 1800s, it was prized for its white, highly scented flowers that opened at night on stems 5 feet tall. The plants are open and airy and the stems may bend under the weight of the lush flower clusters.

My favorite among the tall flowering tobaccos is the woodland tobacco (nicotiana sylvestris) with its sticky, large, pale-green leaves and thick stems. It was planted along walkways and paths in Victorian gardens so that those strolling by could enjoy the sweet fragrance of the flowers.

One popular variety of woodland tobacco, Only the Lonely, grows to 5 feet tall with large leaves almost 12 inches across and spectacular clusters of 4-inch-long, fragrant, white flowers. It is my favorite and I like the name; it conjures up the notion of sitting on the porch steps at dusk, listening to Roy Orbison and watching hawk moths, the air filled with heady perfume.

Send queries to Gardening Questions, P.O. Box 418, Ellsworth 04605, or to rmanley@shead.org. Include name, address and telephone number.

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