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Dynamite Promise: Fragrant Summer Annuals to Grow from Seed
by Caleb Melchior - March 2014

Spring is full of the promise of six-pack pansies, dianthus, lobelia and all the other dainties that love cool days and chilly nights. A few trays at the nursery, a bargain flat at the home improvement center, even a six-pack or two shoved in with the week’s groceries. By midsummer, those spring beauties are toast.

Not to worry. You can still get summer color quickly, easily, and cheaply by growing some of your annuals from seed. Unlike the spring beauties that go rangy and brown by midsummer, these will keep your garden’s flower action steady throughout the most stifling summer days. Which species should you choose?

Flowering Tobacco

Flowering tobacco (Nicotiana alata) is one of the stalwarts of garden center six-pack flats. Popular strains are short and squat, with cream, pink, or green flowers. Bright at the start, they go mildewy and overgrown by the end of summer. Several hybrids and other species offer more drama.


‘Tinkerbelle’ is a hybrid strain bred from one of the standard squat varieties and a taller, slimmer species. Its exquisite flowers have bright green exteriors and dusty-magenta interiors lightened by bright blue stamens. The plant grows in a graceful, open, candelabra shape, 18-24 inches high and 12 inches wide. Its flowers dangle from the tips of the stems. Other medium-sized nicotiana hybrids include the ‘Hot Chocolate’ and ‘Chocolate Smoke’. They have been developed for rich chocolate-burgundy flower colors. They pair beautifully with chartreuse-leaved tropicals such as Colocasia ‘Elena’ and ‘Maui Gold’. Partial shade in the afternoon will preserve the richness of the nicotianas’ flower color.

For larger garden tableaus, consider Nicotiana mutabilis. Its graceful flowers, flatter than those of ‘Tinkerbelle’, open white and fade through shades of pink to deep rose. With hundreds of flowers at one time on a 3-5 foot plant, it has the appearance of a pink-shaded cloud. At the opposite end of the color spectrum, green flowering tobacco (Nicotiana langsdorffii) has sharp limepeel flowers that liven any placid planting. Put it with something dark so that the flowers show up.

Woodland tobacco (Nicotiana sylvestris)

Many of these flowering tobaccos have varying levels of fragrance. The strongest perfume comes from woodland tobacco (Nicotiana sylvestris). It’s a large plant, from 3-5 feet high. For true magnificence, grow ‘Only the Lonely’. Its magnificent clusters of white tubular flowerheads are strongly jasmine-scented at night. I can think of few late-summer pleasures equal to that of sitting in a lawn chair, bathed in the haunting aroma of the woodland tobacco, watching the milk-green moths float between the flowers.

All of these flowering tobaccos can be started from seed inside in a warm sunny place four weeks before frost and planted outside once the ground has warmed. Their seeds are tiny, so start the rarer varieties indoors. Otherwise, sow them directly into the ground after the soil has warmed and danger of frost is past, usually two weeks after the last spring frost. Site them in a location that receives six hours of sun or so per day, with afternoon shade in hot regions of the country. Flowering tobaccos hold up well to high humidity and resent excessive drying out. They will signal their displeasure by wilting dramatically in the heat of the day. Water them and they’ll perk up when the temperatures cool down in the evening.    

Four O’ Clocks

Four o’ clocks (Mirabilis jalapa) are the only species within its genus to be commonly cultivated. However, a range of different seed strains have been developed with a multiplicity of colors and floral effects. Four o’ clocks are so named because their flowers tend to open and release their fragrance later in the day, remaining open all night. Their flowers are tubular, in Technicolor shades with a strong sweet aroma.

One of the most common cultivars is ‘Broken Colors’. Its brightly colored flowers have petals that are flecked magenta, yellow, white and any combination thereof. Each plant will bear flowers in a unique pattern. The plants have a mounding habit 2-3 feet high and wide. They have a full habit with glossy foliage that looks good all through the summer. In addition, their heavy flowering ensures that the plants always look fantastic. ‘Marbles Mix’ is similar to ‘Broken Colors’; however it includes plants with shades of orange as well as magenta, yellow and white. Plants are also a little shorter, to 2 feet in height. Specific color combinations are also available for the Marbles strains, including ‘Yellow-White Marbles’ and ‘Red-Yellow Marbles’.

‘Salmon Shades’

‘Salmon Shades’ is a newer selection with a narrower color range. These heavy-flowering, moderately-sized plants bear flowers in a bright pinky-orange. Spread a skirt of vibrant purple Cuphea ‘Ballistic’ around its base and mass it amidst the eggplant-glossy leaves of Pseuderanthemum ‘Black Varnish’. The hummingbirds will go mad and you will be happy every time you walk by this summertime power trio.

The naturally handsome foliage of four o’ clocks is given an overlay of vibrant color in ‘Limelight’, a seed strain with striking gold foliage and magenta flowers. While all four o’ clocks are bright, be careful with this one. It could provoke visual overload in the unprepared. ‘Limelight’ makes a mound to 2 feet high, wider than it is tall. It grows best in partial shade to protect the foliage from the harshest afternoon sun. 

All of these four o’ clock cultivars are easy to grow from seed. Their seeds are large, making them easy to plant. Soak the seeds in warm water overnight to speed germination. As with the nicotianas, it is possible to start them indoors a few weeks before frost or sow them directly outside after the soil has warmed.

Just Planting the Seed

Think annuals are boring? Go beyond the instant allure of six-pack smiles for the summer-long intrigue of these fragrant hot summer stalwarts. Grown from seed, they’re cheap enough that you can sow vast fields to brighten summer’s hottest days and perfume its steamiest nights.

Photo courtesy of Caleb Melchior.


Caleb Melchior is living the prairie dream as a graduate landscape architecture student in Manhattan, Kan. He looks forward to the day when he, once again, has a garden of his own in which to grow all the plants that catch his eye and tickle his fancy.


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