Nicotiana tabacum, which we commonly refer to as the tobacco plant, is part of the nightshade family (Solanaceae). Interestingly, it is related to tomatoes and peppers. We grow several nicotiana species commercially for snuffing and smoking, but there are many other species of flowering tobacco that we grow as ornamental plants.
But what do tobacco plants look like? There is no easy answer to this question, especially the ornamental types, because flower colors and shapes vary so much. But generally, the huge tobacco leaves of the plant grow toward the base. The leaf shape also varies, but they all appear alternately on the stem and the underside is hairy.
How big is a tobacco plant?
Tobacco plants commonly grow up to 4-6 feet tall, but it depends largely on the species. Some grow as tall as 15 feet, while others may only reach 2-3 feet.
A popular ornamental type, Nicotiana sylvestris, grows up to 5 feet and will often spread 2 feet at the base of the plant
Flowers of commercial species, which are commonly tubular, can get as long as 1.25-2 inches. Some flowering tobaccos produce gorgeous flowers that are 2-4 inches in size.
How to grow tobacco
The first thing to know about tobacco plants is that they need a frost-free period of between 100 and 130 days from the time they have been transplanted as seedlings to maturity.
Tobacco Plants Grown For The Commercial Tobacco Production
Farmers who grow commercial tobacco seeds often germinate these in cold frames that they cover with a thin cloth. Where they grow them in colder regions, they more commonly germinate them in cold frames. Growers cover these with plastic, or they opt for glass-windowed greenhouses.
When we grow tobacco plants as an annual, we plant the young plants out after 8-10 weeks every year.
How Commercial Tobacco is Planted
The way we plant the different types of tobaccos for tobacco production, and where we plant them, varies.
For example, the Orinoco, which producers use for flue-cured tobacco, is grown 20-24 inches apart, in rows that are about 4 feet apart.
But the Pryor types that they grow to produce fire-cured and the dark air-cured type of tobacco is completely different. The more commonly plant these in hills formed about 3.5 feet apart.
Maryland and Burley tobacco strains that tobacco producers use to produce light air-cured tobacco are planted closer together – only about 81-91 cm apart.
They grow the seed-leaf and broadleaf strains including Cuban, Havana, and Sumatra 15-27 inches apart in rows about 3 feet apart. These are the varieties that they use to produce cigars.
Soil for Commercial Tobacco
The type of soil the different types of tobacco grow best in also varies. For example, some types, including Maryland and those grown for flue-curing, do best in sandy loam soil.
The cultivated tobacco that we grow for fire and air-cured tobaccos prefer clay or silt loam soils.
Maintenance & Harvest of Commercial Tobacco
Unlike the species that home gardeners grow for their flowers, we remove the flowerheads of tobacco that we grow for smoking or making snuff. This “topping” process results in suckers forming, and we also need to remove these.
Even though we pick tobacco by hand in most parts of the world, in the U.S. and Canada, growers usually harvest tobacco leaves mechanically. The mechanical process involves cutting the stalks of the plants, while more intensive hand-harvesting involves picking mature leaves as they develop.
Once producers harvest tobacco leaves, they hang them out to cure in various ways, depending on the curing method.
Growing Flowering Tobacco Plants
Your motivation for growing flowering will be completely different for growing tobacco for the nicotine content in their leaves. These species are ornamental and they have beautiful, sweet-smelling flowers.
You can grow flowering tobaccos from seed or seedlings bought from a garden center. The seed packet will specify the preferred soil type and the way the plants will grow best.
It is always best to plant in well-drained soil and to make sure that your plants get at least 6 hours of sunlight every day.
Unlike the commercial tobacco that we produce for its leaves, it is a herbaceous perennial. But some people do grow it as an annual.
Another difference is that we never carry out topping with flowering tobaccos. All you need to do is deadhead the flowers when they die. Just bear in mind that if you want them to self-seed the next year, leave this for as long as possible.
How long does tobacco take to grow?
Whether you are growing tobacco plants for their leaves, to dry and smoke, or for their gorgeous flowers, the seeds will germinate in a week or two. But it will take about two months for the seedlings to mature.
Presuming you are growing them to smoke, the leaves will usually be ready to harvest about three months after you have planted the seedlings.
Flowering tobaccos generally bloom 12-14 weeks after sowing, although hybrids generally flower more quickly, usually in about 10 weeks.
Where do tobacco plants grow?
Tobacco plants are native to South America, and today they grow mainly in tropical and subtropical parts of the world.
Statistica shows that in 2019, the vast amount of tobacco products is done on mainland China which produces more than 2.61 million metric tons (Mmt) of tobacco every year. India is second, producing more than 804 Mmt, followed by Brazil that produces more than 769 Mmt, and Zimbabwe, 257 Mmt.
The U.S. produces only 212.26 Mmt every year.
Ornamental flowering tobaccos were extremely popular in Victorian England, and today they are grown all over the world.
There are various nicotiana species plants including both commercial tobacco and flowering tobaccos. They all have really big leaves which are hairy underneath, and their flowers are pretty.
But some people grow tobacco plants for their leaves and other people grow them for their flowers. While they all look similar, the different ornamental species grow to different sizes, and the flowers, while mostly trumpet-shaped, have different shapes and colors.
If you are planting any of the nicotiana species in your garden, watch the plant growing to see how it turns out.