Quest for the moonflower

Sunday, 15 May 2016

Flower of Ipomoea alba, the moonflower, photo by Lyn Cox

Some readers may recall a blog I wrote wherein I imagined a garden of night-flowering plants. One of the plants I dreamed of growing in such a garden was the moonflower (Ipomoea alba, syn. Calonyction aculeatum), a tropical American vine that I first read about in a gardening novel by English author Beverly Nichols called Sunlight on the Lawn, when I was quite young. Nichols wrote a series of droll novels loosely based on his own gardening experiences, set in the first half of the 20th century, filled with quirky characters and rather improbable plots. However, his gardening information in the novels was very accurate, and he had a particular interest in exotic, warm-climate plants, which he had to cultivate in his heated greenhouse.

A moonflower unfurling at dusk

He first saw a moonflower 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' (1956, p. 251). He became obsessed with getting seeds of the vine to grow in his English garden and after many trials and tribulations, he eventually succeeded in getting the plant to flourish and seeing some of the exotic blooms unfurl at night. Ever since reading about the plant in the novel, I wanted to grow it. I didn't know how or when I'd find it, but it was on my wish list. Somehow, the idea of the moonflower resonated with some yearning to grow flamboyant flowers, rather than the tasteful palette of blooms that were in fashion at the time. However, many years went past and I never did find a moonflower. I searched in people's gardens. in nurseries, at plant stalls at church fetes and garden fairs, and in seed catalogues - to no avail.

Seedpod of the moonflower, Ipomoea alba

Last autumn, when visiting a friend who had recently relocated to inner-city Sydney, I saw a lush, vigorous creeper smothering a fence in a laneway beside her new home. Some large, shrivelled white flowers hung amongst the heart-shaped foliage. My friend described what the flowers were like when they appeared each evening, and I knew that this simply had to be a moonflower vine at last! We crept up to the fence and found that there was an abundance of dried seedpods on the vine, and I have to confess to taking one. I slipped it into my pocket: it was the work of moments. And that seedpod WAS on the street side, I assure you!

Moonflower seedling

The seedpod went home with me and when spring arrived I pressed some of the large white seeds into some pots (though I think it is probably best to sow them directly into the soil). It was wondrous to see the seedlings emerge, showing from their very first true leaves the crisply cut heart shape of the foliage. I planted a couple of seedlings into a planter box in a sunny area below my pool fence. The vine rapidly headed upward, twining around the pool fence with an eagerness that made me slightly nervous - the vine is, after all, related to the dreaded morning glory vine (Ipomoea indica) which was an ongoing pest in my parents' garden ... and I wondered if perhaps I had planted a monster. However, though it is said to grow to 20 m in its natural environment in tropical America, I found that once it reached the top of the pool fence, it was content to wrap itself around the bars in a sideways fashion, in a fairly restrained manner, and provided a pleasant masking of the railings!

Bud of a moonflower

As summer days heated up, the moonflower came into its own. Long, slim buds like tightly rolled parasols began to appear above the foliage, and each night a few flowers would open. The huge blooms, with petals like some superb luxurious fabric, actually unfold before one's eyes over the period of a few minutes at twilight (click here to see it happening in real time), and then they collapse at dawn. They were just as Beverly Nichols had described them, right down to their lovely scent. They lured me out at night and I admired them as I floated in the pool on hot evenings. They would be worth holding a party for, so that all one's friends could admire them. There were blooms for several months, and even now, there is an occasional one. According to Beverly Nichols, the flowers are quite resilient and can be picked to arrange indoors for an evening display, though I have yet to try this. He claims to have taken a bunch of them to give to a prima ballerina who had just danced in Swan Lake in London, and said that when she picked them up it made the perfect picture: 'the white flowers, the white dress, the white skin ... the moonflowers might have been designed for the Swan Princess and for Tchaikovsky's music ... [the flowers] lasted until dawn, firm and radiant' (1956, p. 251). It's a rather gorgeous image, even if it was just a flight of fancy on the part of the author!

Moonflower seeds for planting next spring

Perennial in their natural habitat, I gather that in our climate the moonflower is an annual, being sensitive to cool winters, and it is probably just as well, because otherwise it might go berserk. I would advise pulling the old plant out at the end of autumn and making sure the seedpods are removed so that it can't self-seed where you don't want it or escape into bushland. This is particularly important in areas that are warmer than Sydney. I have saved some seeds from my vine to plant out next spring. Note that the seeds are poisonous if ingested so keep these away from children and animals.

The next time I visited my friend's house, the moonflower vine in the laneway was gone. I was glad that we had surreptitiously got a few seeds from it when we did. So many plants find their way to us in mysterious and serendipitous ways. I think we always need to be on the lookout for what could be just around the corner ...

Reader Comments

  • By Sue T. 2566 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 16 May 2016

    Congratulations. Your moonflower is well worth waiting for. Sue Thanks, Sue. I enjoyed the experience of growing it! Deirdre

  • By margaret 2122 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 16 May 2016

    Thank you for providing some history about the moonflower vine. Thank you, too, for sharing a couple of seeds with me. I had much the same results you have had, with yours. I wonder at the amount of flowers my vine produces, as it scrambles over a nearby arch, it certainly is vigorous! The large, luminous flowers are a delight, and each evening I stand at my back window and admire them. I am glad all went well with the seeds, Margaret! I still have a flower or two each night; I think this mad warm weather accounts for that. Deirdre

  • By Lynette 2577 (Zone:8-9 - Cool Temperate to Alpine) Monday, 16 May 2016

    Hi Margaret, Many years ago whilst living in St Ives in Sydney, I too was obsessed with growing every rare plant and flower I could find. I procured moon flower seeds from Digger"s and was able to have moonflowers right at my north-east facing front door growing in a large pot. As they only flowered at night I think it was only me who was entranced; not my husband or two sons who thought flowers should be around for at least 24 hours. They are a romantic woman"s flower I think! I am really pleased to hear you had success growing them in a pot, Lynette! I agree that they are probably more appealing to women than to men! Deirdre

  • By Linda 2119 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 16 May 2016

    WOW!! Thanks, Linda!! Deirdre

  • By Helen 2154 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 16 May 2016

    When I lived in Perth, about 18 years ago I was lucky enough to obtain Moon Flower seeds, which I happily planted. It grew faster than anything I had ever seen before. The flowers are certainly gorgeous, but the fragrance at about 5.30pm (just in time for G&T"s) was divine. Yes, you have to re-plant it annually, or it would take over your neighbourhood! Enjoy your well deserved break. I love the G&T idea when the moonflower blooms. I would love to have a moonflower party one night! I do agree it should be planted annually and not left in the ground. I imagine in some warmer suburbs it would survive over winter and could get very big and rampageous in time. Deirdre

  • By Georgina 2076 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 16 May 2016

    Hi Deirdre, The Moon flower blooming was wonderful and definitely worth the wait. I have Beverley Nichols "Down The Garden Path."first published in 1932. An enjoyable old fashioned read but full of nice little snippets of information. Georgina I really enjoy the Beverly Nichols gardening novels. I have read nine of them altogether. They are very quaint and very much of another era but his gardening information is generally spot on. Deirdre

  • By Helen 7256 (Zone:10 - Mediteranean) Tuesday, 17 May 2016

    How exciting to grow this plant after admiring it for so long. I must try some of the Beverley Nichols novels they sound entrancing. The moonflower sounds absolutely gorgeous. I do love white with a trace of lime & a beautiful fragrance as well. Thanks, Helen. The first book he wrote in Down the Garden Path and a good one to start with. Hopefully your local library may have a copy! Deirdre

  • By Wilhelmina South Africa Tuesday, 17 May 2016

    At last I have been able to identify my kalanchoa pumilo. It is such an interesting beautifull succulent . It is in a small clay pot with 2 other succulents, like a strawberry pot, can I transplant into a bigger pot and how,when and place it where? Thankyou for accepting me as a member. HI Wilhelmina. Yes you can put your succulent into a bigger pot. It can grow in sun or part shade. This is a good time of year to repot it. Deirdre

  • By Anne 2518 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Wednesday, 18 May 2016

    wonderful when you achieve something like that. Been missing your blog - terrible internet connection recently in Illawarra. I bought seed of the moonflower from Diggers many, many years ago and grew it successfully but as you say in Sydney it does die back. Had another lovely one - day time flower Heavenly Blue which was also an annual and did not go berserk like the purple and blue ones we see taking over our bushland. Beverly Nicholas was such a whimsical writer - he liked cats too. Thanks, Anne. Interesting to hear of your experiences with the moonflower and its relative. I liked the cat books that Beverley Nichols wrote; he had a number of cats during his life and they often featured in the gardening novels. Deirdre

  • By Carole 2230 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 13 June 2016

    I too have enjoyed the magic of the Moonflower when I planted one on my back veranda in Erskineville about 1995. Exquisite.

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