As the sun dips lower and tints the summer-blue sky with shades of tangerine and golden peach, white star-shaped tubular flowers open and release their come-hither fragrance.
In the blink of an eye, a hummingbird appears and begins to feast among the Nicotiana sylvestris, moving among the flowers like a miniature whirling dervish. It's territorial, too, and enters aerial combat with other winged interlopers, chasing them away.
Nicotiana sylvestris is one of my favorite heirloom flowers, and each year draws a hummingbird or two, as well as hummingbird moths. The tall, thick-stemmed annual sets seed throughout my garden and plants come up in the most unexpected places - between bricks in paths, at the base of rose bushes and nestled against the air conditioning unit. The fragrance is heavenly.
The National Garden Bureau has declared 2009 as the "year of nicotiana." Nicotiana (ni-co-she-AA-nah) is also known as flowering tobacco, an ornamental known for prolific blooms.
Like cosmos, fragrant nicotiana is easy to start from seed and is just as gratifying. New hybrids offer stronger colors and more compact plants. Sadly, fragrance is the sacrifice for a better growth habit.
A member of the Solanaceae, or nightshade family, nicotiana is related to petunias, tomatoes, eggplants, peppers and potatoes.
Nicotiana plants contain nicotine and are considered toxic; no part of the plant should be ingested by people or animals.
According to NGB, flowering tobacco was overshadowed by smoking tobacco (Nicotiana tabacum). The first ornamental nicotiana, N. alata, was introduced into gardens in the United States and England in the early 1800s. In Victorian times, highly fragrant N. sylvestris was planted along paths for strollers.
Poet Edna St. Vincent Millay wrote, "Where at dusk the dumb white nicotine awakes and utters her fragrance in a garden sleeping."
The genus name dates from 1753, recognizing Frenchman Jean Nicot, ambassador to Portugal from 1559-1561 who brought powdered tobacco to France to cure the Queen's son of migraine headaches.
Old-fashioned nicotianas can reach upward of 4 feet in height and need to be secured with soft ties against strong stakes. Hybrids are smaller - 12 to 18 inches tall, ideal for small gardens or front of the border.
Here are a few nicotiana worth a second look:
N. alata (also N. affinis): Short-lived perennial most often grown as an annual: reaches up to 5 feet tall; lush and profusely fragrant.
Semi-dwarf "Nicki" series: Grows 16 to 18 inches tall and produces red, white, rose or lime green flowers. In 1979, "Nicki Red" was the first nicotiana to win an All-America Selections award. It has good weather tolerance and blooms spring to fall; little fragrance.
"Saratoga" series: Only 10 to 12 inches tall; early bloomer, light evening scent; seven colors and two mixtures.
"Tinkerbell" (Nicotiana x hybrida): Dusky rose petals face outward from long green trumpets; blue pollen in the center of each flower; reaches 3 feet tall; summer bloomer.
Nicotiana x sanderae: "Perfume" series includes 2006 All-America Selections winner "Perfume Deep Purple." Light fragrance; heat tolerant; reaches 20 inches tall; no deadheading; "Antique Lime" has a tan reserve.
"Domino" series: Thirteen colors and bicolors; blooms early; 12 to 18 inches tall; upward-facing flowers.
"Avalon Bright Pink," 2001 All-America Selections award and European Fleuroselect Gold Medal winner: Bright pastel pink flowers; very dwarf plant.
"Sensation" mix: Tall; fragrant; open all day into the evening.
N. langsdorffii: Unusual with large leaves and tall 2-inch long tubular, bell-shaped flowers; scentless.
Nicotiana grows in full sun to light shade and average, well-drained soil. Sow seeds directly in the garden (mix tiny seeds with sand before seeding). Sow seeds on the surface and lightly water. Or look for bedding plants.
Don't be surprised if nicotiana pops up in the most unexpected places in subsequent years.