Flowers of the night

Sunday, 01 March 2015

Brugmansia flowers are fragrant at night

In an anthropocentric way, we (or at least I) often think flowers are beautiful for our benefit: to delight us and to decorate our gardens. In fact, if course, the sole purpose of a flower is to attract pollinators in order that it can produce offspring for future generations of plants. Whilst birds, butterflies, flies, beetles and bees do their work of pollinating during the day, moths, bats and some types of beetles work the night shift. There is a whole group of night-blooming and night-fragrant plants that has evolved to attract these creatures.

I have often dreamed of creating a small garden of such plants to enjoy on a balmy summer evening. Books have been written on the subject, including the delightful The Evening Garden by Peter Loewer, where suggestions are given for flowers that only open at night and those who exude their strongest perfume in the evening hours. Most night-blooming plants have white, cream or pale yellow blooms, in order to be found by their pollinators - others have scent to lure them - and some have both. The pale flower colours glow in the moonlight, adding to the enchantment of a night garden.

Flower of Ipomoea alba, the moonflower

I envisage a small area enclosed by trellis, on which would grow the moonflower vine, one of the most exotic of the night bloomers. I first read about the moonflower (Ipomoea alba, pictured left, photograph by Lyn Cox) years ago, in a gardening novel by Beverley Nichols, Sunlight on the Lawn, where he described seeing the blooms during his travels in India - climbing around the ruins of a Hindu temple - and in Jamaica - tumbling over a white wall. He described the flowers as like 'the simple wild convolvulus of the hedgerows, but they had a span of three or four inches, and their whiteness was faintly phosphorescent, with a hint of the palest green, such as one glimpses in the fire of a glow-worm. Their fragrance ... suggested a blend of incense and the peel of fresh lemons'. He became obsessed with getting seeds of the vine to grow in his English garden and eventually succeeded in getting the plant to flourish and seeing some of the exotic blooms unfurl at night. The huge blooms actually open before one's eyes over the period of a few minutes at twilight and collapse at dawn. In its native habitat in tropical America, the vine is perennial, growing to 20m! In cooler areas it is usually grown as an annual. It is closely related to the dreaded morning glory vine so I hope it isn't as rampageous as that!

Nicotiana sylvestris

In my hypothetical night garden, I would also grow Nicotiana alata (ht 1 m), an ornamental tobacco with tubular flowers of white, red or pink that open towards evening and have a sweet scent. The stately Nicotiana sylvestris (ht 1-1.5 m, pictured left) is a species with a rosette of huge furry leaves and a very tall spire clustered with white trumpet-shaped flowers that are open by day and night, but are especially fragrant at night. I have grown this plant on and off for years - it is a bit hard to place in a garden, as it needs to be on its own to be fully appreciated, rather than hemmed in by surrounding plants. It self-seeds madly. Flowers of modern hybrid Nicotiana have been bred to stay open all day, but most of the species are night-blooming.

Epiphylum oxypetalum

In a pot in my night garden, I would also grow an orchid cactus: Epiphylum oxypetalum, an epiphytic cactus from tropical and subtropical America, often known as queen of the night. It is a scrambling succulent to 6m that can be trained up through small tree or else grown to cascade from a hanging basket. They apparently do better when the roots are constrained by a container. The stems are branched and flattened, and from the edges of these stems, spectacular, strongly scented flowers appear at night about once a month during summer and early autumn. There are many members of the cactus family that flower at night, including other Epiphyllum species of various colours. They are definitely worth hastily arranging a party to see when in bloom!

Mirabilis jalapa

Another plant with flowers that opens only in the late afternoon or evening is the 4 o'clock or marvel of Peru (Mirabilis jalapa, pictured left), a subshrub from tropical America growing from a tuber and reaching about 1 m in height, smothered with scented tubular flowers of red, magenta, yellow, white or rose - many striped or dashed with other hues. I remember it growing robustly in my mother's Blue Mountains garden. If I included this plant in my night garden, I would keep it in a pot as they can become invasive and difficult to remove eventually. The old-fashioned night-scented stock (Matthiola longipetala subsp. bicornis) is a bedraggled-looking non-entity by day, but by night its pink, mauve or purple petals perk up and exude a delicious perfume, worthy of inclusion in a night garden.

Eucharis x grandiflora

Plants that are open day and night, but which have a strong, sweet fragrance at night to lure pollinators, include the angel trumpet Brugmansia (pictured at the start of the blog), which can grow to a small tree; shrubby night jessamine Cestrum nocturnum with tiny but highly perfumed flowers; white-flowered Gardenia thunbergia; climbers Hoya and Stephanotis floribunda; and the bulbs Gladiolus tristis (with creamy-yellow flowers) and Eucharis x grandiflora, pictured above, with flowers like pristine white daffodils. There are apparently even bromeliads and daylilies that are night-fragrant. The phenomenon of night fragrance explains why some plants said to be 'perfumed' don't seem to be when smelled during the daylight hours! It's definitely worth having a sniff around your garden in the evening to hunt out night-bloomers.

My night garden remains a dream, but with moonflower seeds now in my possession (I recently had the good fortune to find a moonflower vine growing in the inner-west of Sydney, and to obtain some seeds, in one of those serendipitous happenings that make gardening so eternally fascinating), I am one step closer to it!

There will be an exhibition of botanical art at the Lion Gate Lodge, Royal Botanic Garden, Sydney, from 18 April to 10 May 2105, 10 am to 4 pm daily, featuring works by botanic and natural science artists that emphasise how flowers attract their pollinators. Free entry; all works for sale.

Reader Comments

  • By Ian 2519 Monday, 02 March 2015

    Hi Deirdre, That Ipomoea alba is so hard to keep going longer than one season It"s fleeting but worth growing for the perfume. I always plant lots of Cestrum nocturnum as it will grow in sun or shade and forms a quick screen.The flowers smell of coconut and jasmine when the humidity is high. Glad you mentioned the Eucharis lily as I have grown a batch to bring to Collectors" Plant Fair in April Regards Ian Thanks, Ian. I should grow some of the Cestrum nocturnum. I want to try the moonflower for at least one season! I love the Eucharis lily when it flowers; would like to know more about when to withhold water for more blooms. Deirdre

  • By Florence 4068 Monday, 02 March 2015

    Another plant with incredible night fragance but totally insignificant looking flowers is the "night jasmin". I don"t know its proper name , but I propagated (easily) it from cuttings to plant all around my garden in pots or in the ground, as its sweet honeyish fragance is lovely and travel far with the slightest breeze. It sounds gorgeous, Florence. I will investigate! Deirdre

  • By margaret 2122 Monday, 02 March 2015

    Have a few of the plants mentioned: Epiphyllum oxypetalum grows in a small pot and this year had 20 flowers, the only trouble is waiting up till midnight to admire the flowers! Brugmansia and mirabilis provide a wonderful, if sometimes, overpowering perfume. My stephanotis took a long time to establish, but for the last three years, flowers magnificently. Have not had success with the flowering of Matthiola or Eucharist lilies. Now need to try more night-blooomers, especially the Moon Flower! Great result with the orchid cactus, Margaret! Maybe a night garden is best for insomniacs! There is a trick with the Eucharist lilies to do with withholding water then watering again to get more flowers, I think, but I haven"t got my head around it. It is utterly gorgeous when in bloom. Deirdre

  • By Pam 2159 Monday, 02 March 2015

    The somewhat weedy yellow Evening Primrose, (Oenothera odorata?) is also fragrant when the flowers open at dusk. I have a couple of clumps of them. Children and grandchildren have watched the elegant 4 petalled flowers unfurl - just like a slow motion movie. Each evening all the flowers ready to open all open at the same time, and then they fade away during the next day. Amazing to watch the flowers unfurl. I like the drama of night-blooming flowers. Deirdre

  • By Jean 4035 Monday, 02 March 2015

    Hi Deidre. I am going to steal your dream and have a night garden. We plan to move in the next year, so am planning a new garden but this time with defined sections. I cant wait. Of course i will grieve for the garden I leave behind. Right niw I have three varieties of Tibuchinas in glorious bloom. Each one has different shades and bloom formation clumps. Among the night bloomers. (Thanks to this blog) I have the orchid cactus in yellow and red. Hope it all goes well. Sad to leave your garden - hope you have lots of photos. Be a little cautious of the moonflower if you try it in your tropical climate - maybe confine it to a large pot. Deirdre

  • By meryl 2206 Monday, 02 March 2015

    Quisqualis indica (Rangoon Creeper, Drunken Sailor) has a powerful and delicious night scent. The perfume is slight but detectable during the day when the clusters of tubular flowers in white, pink and red steal the show. It"s a climber - well, more of a leaner really, hence the Drunken Sailor name, I suppose - which I grow on my front fence. I believe it can become weedy in the tropics but in Sydney it"s just lush. I cut it back hard in winter. Thanks, Meryl. I have a young plant of it but it has not flowered yet. Good to know it is fragrant at night - it is outside my front door, Deirdre

  • By Suzanne 2073 Monday, 02 March 2015

    Always impressed by the topics you choose for your weekly blog Deidre. I have had success this year with my Eucharist lily growing in a pot in our family room. Have previously tried to grow it outdoors but it didn"t flower. In a previous garden had great problems with a moonflower planted in the neighbours garden on our shared paling fence which took off and required constant attention to stop it rooting throughout our garden. Came home from holidays to find it up the downpipe and on the roof. Thanks for that cautionary note about the moonflower, Suzanne. I am going to put mine in a contained bed. That sounds interesting about growing your Eucharist lily inside. Deirdre

  • By meryl 2206 Monday, 02 March 2015

    Came back to read your response, Deirdre, and saw Suzanne"s comment on Eucharis grandiflora lilies. Mine flower indoors, too, but in the open garden hardly at all, although they are proliferating madly. Gil Hanly (of Florilegium) and Jacqueline Walker, in their book The Subtropical Garden, say that drought triggers flowering, "so if watering can be controlled, three or four flowerings a year can be induced". The bad news (or maybe it is just my nose) is that the perfume is light at best. Thanks for the information, Meryl. I am quite intrigued about growing the Eucharis indoors. It would never have occurred to me. I have heard of the water control thing but I always forget to follow the regimen. I will investigate further! Deirdre

  • By Carole 2230 Tuesday, 03 March 2015

    Epiphylum oxypetalum I have growing up a very tall sheoak, I don"t think it has flowered yet although it has been growing for about 16 years. I planted a Moonflower in Erskineville in "94, beautiful. Now have lots of brugmansia, one illegal cestrum nocturnum, a old recalcitrant stephanotis, definitely recommend the perfume from pittosporum undulatum although a native it is being classed as undesirable - sad. I"m hoping a white mandevilla I have in a pot is going to flower, exquisite perfume.

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