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 ...