#91 Tobacco Plants







Nicotiana or ornamental tobacco plants, sometimes called “jasmine tobacco,” belong to the Solanacaea or nightshade family.  Native to the Americas, they are smaller versions of the more addictive cash crop, usually growing only two to four feet high, with greyish, often slightly sticky foliage, bearing pale, tubular, star-shaped flowers which open in the evening releasing a sweet perfume and attracting all manner of pollinators, including hummingbirds and moths (Hogan 932)[1]. The most popular garden version is the tender perennial Nicotiana alata. Blooming in the summer through early fall, the flowers were originally white or pale green, although new hyrbids have appeared in many shades of yellow and reds from pink to maroon to purple.


Woolf mentions “tobacco plants” six times --twice in biographical writings, twice in essays, and twice in fiction. Ranging from 1907 to 1927, these references occur fairly early in her life and consistently evoke somewhat elegiac memories of the scent of the flowers attracting moths on a peaceful summer evening.  Although this vision of moths hovering over flowers at twilight is similar to Cornish memories of  moths among the evening primroses,[2] Woolf’s earliest recorded experiences with tobacco plants take place in Sussex, during a 1907 stay with her brother Adrian at Playden, near Rye. In August she records an evening looking at the stars and moon through a telescope, walking in the “vast darkness,” where “the tobacco plants gleamed pale & their fine perfume powdered the air with sweetness,” calling the plant a “true moon flower” (PA 368). Writing from Playden a month later in a letter to the wife of Bernard Darwin she evokes this memory, adding in fluttering Hawkmoths: “you seem to me one of the quickest of women; quivering your feet like a moth on the wing. We have great Hawkmoths here, over the tobacco plants, at night" (L1 311).  In her 1916 essay on “Butterflies and Moths: Insects in September,” the image is repeated: “The autumn nights are full of moths. As the light fades they begin to busy themselves among the flowers, and few sights have a greater enchantment than that of a Hawk moth with its vibrating wings blurred in movement, suspended above a tobacco plant or an evening primrose” (E6 382) -- the presence of the evening primrose blending the Sussex location with the garden at Talland house in Cornwall. [3]


            Moths flutter throughout Woolf’s early elegiac novel, Jacob’s Room (1922), emblems of mystery whose fragility foreshadows the death of Jacob and many others on the fields of Flanders.[4] The hawk moth, Agrius convolvuli or convolvulus moth -- so named because its caterpillars eat the leaves of convolvulus aka bindweed or morning glories [5] [6]-- which she had pictured feeding from tobacco flowers in both Sussex and Cornwall makes a repeated appearance here, fluttering over the tobacco plants in the Cornish setting of the Durrant’s house in a context suggestive of Woolf’s childhood memories of Talland House: “The pampas grass raised its feathery spears from mounds of green at the end of the meadow. A breadth of water gleamed. Already the convolvulus moth was spinning over the flowers. Orange and purple, nasturtium and cherry pie, were washed into the twilight, but the tobacco plant and the passion flower, over which the great moth spun, were white as china” (JR 56).  It is, of course, a hawk moth with which the narrator later identifies, vibrating over the “cavern of mystery” that is Jacob (JR 74).





            A last couple of mentions of tobacco flowers seem to link them lightly with the memory of female friends. In Mrs. Dalloway, tobacco flowers -- sans their insect pollinators -- again appear as a memory of a lost edenic garden. Attending Clarissa Dalloway’s party near the end of the novel, Sally Seaton remembers how she and Clarissa had been friends, not mere acquaintances, and how “she still saw Clarissa all in white going about the house with her hands full of flowers -- to this day tobacco plants made her think of Bourton” (MD 184). Two years later, in September of 1927, reviewing Katherine Mansfield’s Journal, recently edited by her husband John Middleton Murray, Woolf quotes a passage describing the arrival of Katherine’s cat, Wingley, as a example of her friend’s ability to preserve the outline of a moment that “suddenly puts on significance”: “‘It’s raining, but the air is soft, smoky, warm. Big drops patter on the languid leaves, the tobacco flowers lean over. Now there is a rustle in the ivy. Wingly has appeared from the garden next door; he bounds from the wall. And delicately, lifting his paws, pointing his ears, very afraid the big wave will overtake him, he wades over the lake of green grass’” (E4 447; quoted from Mansfield, Journal 117). While the hovering moths have given way to a careful cat, even in the rain the tobacco flowers exude an aura of tranquil beauty surrounding the memory of her deceased friend.


             In his Introduction to the collection of photographs, Vanessa Bell’s Family Album, Quentin Bell recalls a scene of evening tranquility at Charleston which seems to sum up Woolf’s memories of tobacco plants.  Sometimes after dinner, the French windows into the walled garden were opened, cigar were lit, and music was put on the gramophone: “One went through the windows, and to Mozart was added the delicious scent of the tobacco plants. . .  overhead the bats flew, sudden and silent and from within the house came the music; we who had ventured out spoke in hushed voice as though in deference to the beauty of the night” (13).

See Works Cited Page for full documentation


[1] See Wikipedia entry for more information.   https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nicotiana_alata Accessed May 18, 2022.  Other sites describing varieties of Nicotiana include White Flower Farm https://www.whiteflowerfarm.com/76795-product.html and the website of North Carolina State University: https://plants.ces.ncsu.edu/plants/nicotiana-alata/ Both accessed May 18, 2022.


[2]  See my entry on evening primroses: https://woolfherbarium.blogspot.com/p/evening-primrose.html  Accessed May 20, 2022.


[3] Although not specifically identified as hawk moths, the “swift grey moths of the dusk” reappear “vibrating to a blur” over the yellow flowers of the Evening Primroses in Woolf’s 1919 essay “Reading,” immediately before another extended description of the process of capturing moths at night (E3 150).


[4] Christina Alt reviews the scholarship on moths in Jacob’s Room, specifically the analogy between “the light of civilization and light employed as a lure” for catching moths (96).  Of particular note are Harvana Richter, “Hunting the Moth” (1980), Christinia Froula, “Out of the Chrysalis” (1986), and pp. 127-30 of Kathy Phillips, Woolf against Empire (1994).


[5] See my entry on convolvulus: https://woolfherbarium.blogspot.com/p/blog-page_24.html  Accessed May 20, 2022.


[6] See Wikipedia on hawk moths. The entry also points out that this species has a particularly long proboscis that allows it to feed off flowers with deep trumpets such as nicotiana.  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Agrius_convolvuli Accessed May 20, 2022.


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Welcome to the Virginia Woolf Herbarium.  For many years I have been researching and writing about Virginia Woolf and parks, gardens, and fl...