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The Cottage March/Ostara 2002


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Moon Garden

There is nothing more beautiful than a balmy summer night under the light of the full moon when the sky is littered with twinkling stars. These are the nights when we are most aware of the moon, and there is an entire world of plant life which relies on the "things that go bump in the night" to pollinate the blossoms. In the sunshine many white or cream colored flowers seem dull and act only as a background or accent for more brilliantly hued blooms. But there are secrets which explain why these are so muted in the day and literally glow as if by magic in the darkness.

One of the first signs of spring are the moths that come fluttering at our windows after dusk where they are drawn "like a moth to a flame" by the bright electric lights. What candles drew them before man inhabited the landscape? It was the white flowers which reflected the wane illumination of heavenly bodies, for even stars on the moonless evening shed some light. And the flowers evolved or were created with this coloring to coax night flying moths into their nectar filled centers and thus insure pollination. But if the light is not quite enough, then there is often a fragrance however subtle which heralds the promise of honey over great distances.

Some of the most interesting examples of this unique relationship of nighttime wildlife pollinators occurs right here in native plants of the desert southwest. Cereus is an enormous genus of cacti with over 450 species that bloom at night, and in the early California fiestas were arranged around the flowering of giant cereus called "reina-de-la-noche" or queen-of-the-night. Many other types of cacti and desert plants bloom at night when temperatures are cooler and flying insects more numerous. They also draw bats which help to pollinate the giant saguaro cactus, the most easily recognized of all with its massive size and human-like arms. High atop the plants there develops a "wreath" of white fragrant blossoms, each one up to four inches across when fully open. These are a favorite food of Sanborn's long-nosed bat which literally buries itself in pollen while sucking out the abundant nectar deep inside each flower.

Another fascinating desert plant is the yucca with its iridescent candles of blooms which makes a fine garden specimen and a conversation piece after dark. This plant maintains a unique relationship with "yucca moths" Tegeticula yuccasella, which plays a key role in the plant's ability to reproduce. Although yucca flowers are open during the daytime and visited by bees, they do not carry on pollination as the blooms are "nyctitropic". This botanical term indicates they physically change at nightfall. During the day the cup-like blossoms hang downwards, but just as a sunflower follows the sun, the yucca flowers turn to face the sky at night and emit their fragrance. This artificial pheromone or sexual scent attracts the yucca moths, although different species of moth may be required for specific types of yucca.

Yuccas must cross pollinate with another plant to set seed. The moth not only picks up this rather heavy, moist pollen but rolls it into a ball as well. She will carry the ball to another yucca plant where she lays her eggs inside the flower parts and plugs the hole with the pollen ball. Her offspring will hatch, feed upon the developing seed ovary, but always leave a sufficient number of mature seeds behind to sustain the species. Due to the unique, heavy nature of the pollen, the yucca would not be capable of pollination without the assistance of these moths.

The saguaro and yucca rely on both flower color and fragrance to insure pollination, and our night gardens may enjoy both these sensual experiences as well. Many other garden plants offer the same characteristics, particularly those which originated in the tropics where scent is an important means of drawing pollen vectors in the riot of jungle vegetation. With limited eyesight, many species of insect will respond to scents over a much larger area than they do visual color. Fragrances in cultivated garden flowers vary in their sweetness and intensity. In some cases the plants mimic pheromones which are the natural sexual attractants of insects and may be too subtle for us to smell. Musty odors tend to resemble the natural odors of bats.

White for Moonlight

Vita Sackville-West was a famous English garden writer who inhabited Sissinghurst Castle earlier in this century. There she would write her books on the third floor of a medieval tower and survey her garden from above. It is this perspective which had a great influence on the design of this great garden, but what is more interesting is a portion called the "white garden". Wandering through its parterre of fine boxwood hedges enclosing every species of white flowering annual and perennial imaginable, it seems rather uninteresting and monotonous. But what few viewers realize is that it was designed by a woman who would look down upon the geometric hedges after dark.

Vita often walked her land in the dark conjuring up images for her writing, and it was in a woodland dell that she first saw a white lily made radiant by moonlight on a clear night. Inspired she discovered that a white flowering garden would literally jump out of its muted green surroundings under the right conditions to create a new and exciting experience for all who saw the garden under the moon. Imagine how many nights she lingered in her tower to savor the brilliant garden from above and it is easy to see how it would influence her mystical world of story telling.

We too can join in this celebration of the night by adding plants which flower in cream, yellow or white to reflect the moonlight. Plants with gray or silvery foliage are also interesting as they too become iridescent under night lighting. Because it is their leaves which reflect light, you can count on the effect all year around rather than just when the plants are in bloom In fact, you can manipulate garden lights to subtly mimic moonlight and enhance this characteristic artificially.

The Plants ( exotic night bloomers)

Unfortunately many of the most exotic night bloomers are strictly tropical and unsuitable for northern gardens. But there are a good number of them that will take quite a beating, with annuals being most versatile as they die out with winter anyway. The potency of scents seems to be reduced during the day where temperatures are unusually hot because the fragrance may literally evaporate. In this case the evening and morning may be most fragrant even though the plant itself does not emit any more or less scent than at other times. Practically any pale flower will reflect moonlight, some are fragrant and a few are both.

The name "nocturnal daylilies" seems a contradiction in terms yet this group of perennial plants offers some of the most spectacular flowers with nighttime scents. Those with white, yellow or cream coloring will also provide vivid glowing color as well. There is an enormous number of hybrid daylily varieties in cultivation today. A recently published book "The Evening Garden" (1993 Macmillan) by Peter Loewer is a virtual bible of night gardening. In it he devotes an entire chapter to nocturnal daylilies followed by an exhaustive listing of varieties. Retail nurseries only carry a few varieties of the genus Hemerocallis, but Daylily Discounters, a mail order specialty nursery offers a HUGE selection contained in a beautiful color catalog.

Two bedding plants of renown for their evening fragrance and night colors include old-fashioned four o'clock because its flowers wait to open only in that late hour of the day. Jasmine tobacco, (Nicotiana alata) an ornamental relative of the cigarette plants open their flowers at dusk to emit a potent moth attractant throughout the night.

For the greatest impact under moonlight there are some star performers. Matilija poppy (Romneya coulteri), is also called the fried egg plant because big bushy perennial plants blossom with white, crape petaled flowers with a yolk sized bundle of orange stamens at the center. A valuable plant for drought tolerant night gardens. The calla lilies in grandmother's garden are also blessed with snow white flowers and if given an abundance of water will produce an eye popping nightly show. Where conditions are mild, the blooms of all gardenias remain fully open in moonlight and emit a heavenly fragrance reminiscent of exotic tropical jungles. The variety 'Mystery' has the largest plants and flowers. Everywhere in the sunbelt states grow the fortnight lilies (Moraea iridioides), so delicate to behold yet incredibly durable and drought tolerant. They are the saving grace of many dryland gardens with bladed leaves and white flowers resembling those of Dutch iris.

An excellent groundcover that really glows, snow-in-summer (Cerastium tomentosum) is a potent mass of white when in bloom. There are various species of the drought tolerant and rugged rockrose group which bloom in white five petaled flowers the size of a fifty cent piece. Two examples are sageleaf rockrose (Cistus salvifolius) which is a groundcover just over a foot tall but spreads to six feet in diameter, while the white rockrose (Cistus corbariensis) is upright and averages 3 to 4 feet tall. Combine these with candytuft (Iberis sempervirens) which does not spread but develops into neat little mounds that become frosted with snowy blooms.

Fragrant Vines

Some of the most fragrant plants for night gardens are vines, and because they are so versatile in the landscape they fit into even the most limited patio. Plants can grow large and submit to creative pruning which concentrates their blossoms into a small space and intensifies the scent.

Wisteria is a deciduous woody vine that will survive winters almost anywhere. The pendulous flower clusters are showy day or night, blooming but for a few weeks a year. They do become more potently scented at night although the white varieties are less so.

Japanese honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica) is one of the most fragrant of all vines and simple to grow. It is rather invasive but does increase scent in the morning and evening when moths seem to be drawn to the nectar filled white and yellow flowers.

Evergreen clematis (Clematis armandi), a unique member of this large viney clan blooms over a limited period but its very intensely perfumed white flowers will stop traffic. Prefers partial shade and is not particularly attractive when out of bloom.

Carolina jessamine (Gelsemium sempervirens) is evergreen and blooms over a few weeks in early spring with hundreds of yellow trumpet-shaped flowers that are quite fragrant. Durable and reliable it is perfect for covering unsightly chain link fencing but should be considered poisonous.

Winter jasmine (Jasminum polyanthum) is a lacy evergreen vine with delicate clusters of white, potently scented flowers. Its thin runners and slow controlled growth makes it perfect for weaving into lattice or chain link fencing where it becomes a wall of fragrance.

Star jasmine (Trachelospermum jasminoides) is also called "confederate jasmine" because it so resembles true jasmine in form and scent. The small white flowers are fragrant and plants bloom intermittently after a strong showing in spring.

Iridescent foliage

Plants with iridescent foliage are many, but those which double as aromatic herbs are more versatile. The Romans once planted aromatic plants in their courtyards so they could be sheared regularly to release the pungent scents. Lavender Cotton (Santolina chamaecyparissus) is a small, easy to grow woody herb that makes great little border hedges and rarely grow more than 12" high. They are perfect for outlining the shapes of geometric beds, parterres or knot gardens. The soft lamb's ears (Stachys lanata) becomes a distinct, muted gray when moonlight strikes the fuzzy hairs which cover each leaf surface. Dusty miller (Centaurea cineraria) is a strong silvered perennial which should be used with care because it is a robust perennial and tends to become rangy. But only under moonlight does its true beauty shine forth.

Virtually any plant which blooms with white, cream or yellow flowers can be part of the moonlight garden. If combined with hard reds and dark blues these flowers will disappear with dusk to leave only the white ones visible. A mingling with pale lavender, sky blue and shell pink creates more intermediate colors which resists the coming of night far longer. Or you may simply dedicate a strategic point in your garden for the moon where its wane light might strike the flowers without shadows of trees or buildings. There place a bench or swing where you may linger on nights of full moon and marvel at how sex and the reproductive urge in plants has resulted in such a mystical, romantic effect.


When selecting plants for a moonlight garden remember that there may be many varieties of a single species, and often these will include a cultivar with white flowers. For example, Syringa vulgaris is the common purple lilac, but the cultivar 'Miss Ellen Wilmott' blooms pure white. Camellias are often pink or red, but the cultivar 'Alba Plena' is also white. Therefore it may take some research, but you will be surprised at how many white flowering gardens plants you can find with a little reading.

Fragrance is the second factor, but just a few species emit fragrance only at night. It's much simpler to plant those with pale colored flowers and all around fragrance to incorporate this factor into your plan. Don't forget the aromatic foliage plants either because a tiny garden of manicured herbscan be quite powerfully scented.

The following plant lists contain species that are typically white flowering, or those with silvery foliage that becomes dramatic under moonlight. They are by no means every option available but should help with selection. There are hundreds of different varieties of annuals which bloom white, but only permanent plants are mentioned here.

Before buying a plant be sure it is hardy for your climate zone as this varies considerably. A limited water supply or dry climate should not prevent you from creating a moonlight garden. Since there is so little written on this type of planting, an effort has been made to include a broad palette of drought tolerant species.


Plants with Showy White Flowers for Moonlight
Botanical Name Common Name Type Fragrance Drought Tolerant
Achillea millefolium Common Yarrow Perennial Aromatic Yes
Cerastium tomentosum Snow-In-Summer Groundcover No Moderate
Chrysanthemum maximum Shasta Daisy Perennial No No
Cistus corbariensis White Rockrose Shrub No Yes
Cistus salvifolius Sageleaf Rockrose Groundcover No Yes
Clematis armandi Evergreen Clematis Vine Yes No
Gardenia spp Gardenia Shrub Yes No
Hemerocallis spp Selected Daylilies Perennial Yes Moderate
Iberis sempervirens Candytuft Perennial No No
Jasminum polyanthemum Winter Jasmine Vine Yes No
Magnolia spp Star Magnolia Tree Yes No
Moraea iridioides Fortnight Lily Perennia No Yes
Nerium oleander White Oleander Shrub No Yes
Romneya coulteri Matilija Poppy Perennial Yes Yes
Rosa banksia 'Alba Plena' Lady Bank's Rose Vine Yes No
Spiraea prunifolium Bridalwreath Shrub No No
Trachelospermum jasminoides Star Jasmine Vine Yes Moderate
Viburnum spp Viburnum Shrub No No
Yucca spp Yucca Perennials Yes Yes
Zantedeschia aethiopica Cally Lily Hybrids Bulb No No
Spp. = Many species of this genus.


Plants with Gray or Silvery Iridescent Foliage
Botanical Name Common Name Type Fragrance Drought Tolerant
Artemisia spp Wormwood Shrub Yes Yes
Buddleia davidii Butterfly Bush Shrub Yes Yes
Centauria cineraria Dusty Miller Perennial No Yes
Festuca ovina glauca Blue Fescue Grass No Moderate
Lavandula spp Lavender Perennial No Yes
Santolina chamaecyparissus Lavender Cotton Perennial Aromatic Yes
Stachys lanata Lamb's Ears Perennial No Moderate
Spp. = Many species of this genus.


Copyright 1998,1999, 2000 MaureenGilmer.