Missing Nature’s Daytime Show? Just Wait …

Fragrance of the night. Night-scented flowers clockwise from top: Datura (bush moonflower), night blooming phlox, four o'clocks, Tina James Magic Evening Primrose, Flowering Nicotine.
Fragrance of the night. Night-scented flowers clockwise from top: Datura (bush moonflower), night blooming phlox, four o'clocks, Tina James Magic Evening Primrose, Flowering Nicotine.

Spring is a busy time for gardeners, farmers, and people whose lives involve gardening and agriculture. And we often are literally busy from before sunup to way past sunset.

But there is nothing like stealing a few Zen gardening moments at the beginning or end of your day. I do it year-round; just go outside before my day starts or at its end and sit and just drink in all that grows, flies and buzzes around. But I know I am missing a lot.

I put out oranges for the Baltimore orioles, and all sorts of seeds for the birds, but by the time I get home, the oranges are cleaned out and the birdfeeders are empty. So, what is there for me to enjoy? Enter the plants of the night, also called vespertine plants.

You are familiar with some of these plants already. Many are old-fashioned reseeding annuals that your grandmother or great-grandmother may have included in the garden. Not only do these plants put on their show when you are home, but they also invite some spectacular guests.

Vespertine plants open in the evening and stay open until the next morning; then often closing. These plants include four o’clocks, datura (ground moonflower), moonflower vine and Tina James Magic Evening Primrose. All of these flowers are trumpet-shaped,

Then there are the flowers that remain open in the day, but it is only the magic of the night that signals them to give off the most delicious fragrances. These include the flowering tobaccos (Nicotiana spp.), night phlox and the ugly duckling of cacti-cereus.

So why care? These are the plants that wait to give you their show when you get home, like that loyal puppy waiting for their owner by the door late at night.

These plants also tend to be light colored, white or silver. There is a whole area of landscape design that focuses on these flowers, often called night or moon gardens. My talented and dear friend, Nina Koziol, just published a fantastic book on White Gardens.

My sister, who I admit is a way better gardener than I am, found a book that had theme gardens in them, and one of the templates was a white, or moon garden in the shape of the crescent moon that contained all white and silver flowers. It is beyond stunning, actually dazzling, at night.

One thing about flowers and plants that have whitish of silvery leaves, they are almost invisible during the daytime in the garden. But once the sun is down and until sunrise, these plants are in their glory. Now only do they look great, these plants are some of the most fragrant plants we can grow.

But you may be asking, why don’t you see these plants for sale at most stores, from big box to specialty nurseries? Fragrance is a hard thing to market for a vendor when it exudes at night. But I guarantee you, plant a few of these by seed or transplant (not easy to find already growing), and from mid-summer on out, you will be rewarded with not only intoxicating, heady, sweet fragrance, but some amazing visitors.

Whereas butterflies are daytime folk, the creatures of the night, the glorious moths are a spectacular sight, and they, too, are attracted by the intense fragrance. Have you ever seen a hummingbird moth? You might have and not even realized, because like their namesake, they are also fast flyers. But those aren’t feathers, they are insect wings with a long proboscis. The sphinx moths are particularly beautiful. And let me remind you before you squish the next tomato hornworm, their adult form is a sphinx moth.

In hot weather you will even see hummingbirds and some additional daytime pollinators at your night garden flowers feeding while they try to avoid the searing heat.

So why do these flowers open and exude fragrance at night? And why are they light-colored? It is all about evolution. Animals and plants have changed over millennia to make sure they are as successful as possible. Success in nature — whether you are a plant, animal, fungus, or virus — is making more of yourself so your “family can live on.”

These night flowers with their fragrance, basically are putting on their best dress and cologne to attract a partner-their pollinator. Since plants can’t pick up and move if they can’t find a spouse, they have to do everything in their power to bring their mate to them.

That is why pollinators are so important and also specific. Scientists are still waiting to discover some species of orchid that they know the pollinator to from their very specialized mouthparts.

So, if you are a night blooming plant, you make your “outfit” (flower petals) most visible in the moonlight. Hence the light yellows, whites, and silver colors of these nighttime flowers.

And that alluring fragrance, all the better to attract the insects and other animals that can connect their genetics to another plant, so they have success –seed production.

There is one flower in this group that exceeds the wildest nighttime expectations. It is not only a beautiful butter yellow flower that smells like lemon meringue pie, but you can actually watch it spin open in a few minutes. The Tina James Magic Evening Primrose is a biennial plant (leaves first year, flowers and seed set, second year). This plant was so amazing that Victorians used to throw “Primrose Parties” to watch them spin open-and then, of course, take a drink.

I planted these from seed years ago and didn’t fully read the instructions, so I thought they were a failure. The second year, I didn’t even realize they came back, until I was looking out the window at sunset, and it looked like small yellow umbrellas were opening before my eyes.

Google “Tina James Magic Evening Primrose opening” to see this for yourself.

There is still time to plant these night fragrant plants from seed. You will be glad you did!

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