Amazing annuals: Nicandra

Big, bold and sure to confound the neighbours, this is perfect for filling big gaps

Another Oops I am afraid. rewind back to ‘N’. I could not really ignore this plant because, although it is not really what we expect of an annual for bedding, it is an annual and it is worth growing. More importantly, in my role as garden advisor/problem solver it is the most common ‘mystery plant’ that I am asked to identify. It appears, uninvited, in lots of gardens. It is strange that so many people have grown this, unintentionally, and this is thought to be because of contaminants in bird food.

I have posted about the plant before, because I am rather fond of it and I won’t repeat too much here. The funnel-shaped flowers are reason enough to grow it, though they are rather small in relation to the size of the plant. But it is perhaps the beautifully constructed seed pods, surrounded by persistent, indigo-flushed sepals, that make it such a good garden plant. As the stems extend and new flowers are produced, the old flowers are followed by the seed pods which are striking when green but which dry well for winter decoration in the home.

It is native to western South America and looks rather like physalis but it is not edible and is not related. There is only one species of Nicandra. Nicandra physaloides is a large annual, reaching 1.5m in good soil and makes a large plant a metre across with large, light green leaves, dotted with purple, and winged stems. It can be started in March, in heat, and plants are keen to bloom so they must never be stressed but planted on as soon as they fill pots wit root to keep them growing. If sowing direct, from late March to May, they must be thinned at a young age so they have plenty of room to grow or tey will flower at a small size and be stunted.

The flowers are typically denim blue with a white centre and darker nectar guides and about 5cm across. Hoverflies seem to like them though the plant is often called shoo-fly plant because it is reputed to keep flies away and possibly whitefly. I am not convinced of most companion planting but it may be worth popping a few among cabbages to keep pests at bay, and at least it is ornamental even of it does not actually help.

This is another member of the Solanaceae so I would not consider eating any part of it though the leaves are often said to be edible. Treat it as ornamental only unless you know how to prepare it or are desperate for greens. The seeds are supposed to be toxic, and as the leaves and seeds have been used as an insecticide I would rather not be tempted.

But as an ornamental it is a lovely thing and, in addition to the plan species there is ‘Violacea’ with deeper blue flowers and more intensely suffused bracts and ‘Splash of Cream’ with variegated leaves. Although I have never grown it, there is also a white-flowered form ‘Alba’ which I would like to try. But blue is not a common flower colour so any are welcome in the garden.

Although an easy annual, it is not hardy and young plants that germinate in autumn will not survive winter frost. But the seeds, which can be slow to germinate, seem to benefit from cold and fluctuating temperatures to grow.

Unless being grown as a specimen plant this needs robust neighbours. It works well as a cheap and easy sub-tropical plant, associated with cannas, dahlias and sunflowers.

I am sure that it can be a weed in mild climates. I do find that it selfseeds and pops up years after I grew it intentionally but the seedlings are distinctive and easy to remove so I doubt that it would be a problem in climates with frosty winters.


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