Night Owl Plants

By Jan Piper

Freelance Writer

What do you and Tegeticula yuccastella have in common? No, this is not a disease and it’s not an ingredient in your hair spray. Like the rest of us, Tegeticula yuccastella thrills at the scent of fragrance-laden flowers and loves the garden bathed in moonlight. In the complex wonders of nature, the moth Tegeticula yuccastella, along with other moths, bees, beetles, and bats is drawn to his destiny (in this case, the yucca plant) by scent. Not all of the attracting night scented plants are strictly night bloomers, opening their blooms and releasing their scent after sunset. Many of the plants mentioned in this article bloom all day long as well, but their fragrance becomes more noticeable with the infinitesimal cooling and added moisture that comes as day changes to night. Sometimes these hard working pollinators are also guided in the night by the whiteness of the foliage and/or flowers, a characteristic color of night blooming plants.

For those of you who find summer gardening more pleasant after the sun goes down (my neighbor and I call ourselves the “midnight gardeners”), or in all practicality, never even see your gardens until after a long day at the office, here are a few Texas-hardy plants that lend themselves to a moonlight garden. The moonlight garden is a concept that includes the use of white flowering and/or foliaged plants – more visible in the dark, combined with scented flowers, herbs, shrubs, and trees; designed around a sitting area or adjacent to an existing patio with the purpose of enhancing the beauty of the summer night.

First, I’ll mention a few of the scented plants. Tall flowering tobacco (Nicotiana alata) is a handsome native with broad green basal leaves, topped by a flower stalk (3 to 4 feet) covered with little trumpet shaped jasmine scented flowers which bloom all summer long. This plant prefers some daytime shade but adapts to almost any spot. It make take a short breather in the extreme heat but you can help it rebloom by cutting down the flower stalk when it is completely bloomed out.

The big white, cream or purple trumpets (5 to 8 inches) of datura stand above a wide sprawling mass of leaves – datura can get to 4-feet across, so give it some room. It is a hardy native that is perennial; it takes less than average water and isn’t fussy about soil. Datura is often listed as a poisonous plant, though it has been used by native Americans for various purposes. If you have children or dogs that habitually eat flowers, you may have to forego growing this stunning plant with its mild sweet smell.

Jasmine is my favorite evening scent. Somehow there’s nothing quite like being greeted by this heavenly smell at your doorstep on a summer evening. Not all of these various sized shrubs and climbers have scent, but count on the Sambac jasmines for plenty of fragrance and “angel wing,” “Spanish” and common white as reliable fragrant climbers.

Gardenias, which are more particular about their soil than jasmine, are another favorite night scent. In the “old days” people prided themselves on their gardenias and most remember them as being big shrubs (6-foot and up). Nowadays, there are many dwarf varieties available for the modern gardener that lend themselves to container planting, a nice way to go if your soil is alkaline. In a pot, you can provide them the acid soil they need, placing a dish under it to keep it on the moist side and putting them in a shadier spot during the hottest months.

Moonflower (Ipomoea alba) is an annual vine that is a must for old style southern gardens. Its white, 6-inch-long and wide blooms unfurl like those of its morning glory cousins in the early evening. This fast growing vine with its nice scent and big heart-shaped leaves is a good cover for summer arbors.

The tropical angel trumpet (Brugmansia) makes a 5-foot bush here in central Texas where it freezes back to the ground each winter. The sight of this shrub, garlanded with 10-inch-long trumpets of apricot, yellow or white flowers in late summer is spectacular! Brugmansias have a gentle, creamy fragrance – in some the scent is stronger than others. If you purchase the plants while in bloom, be sure to pick the most scented ones.

Heliotrope is another famous scent plant in which the strength of the scent seems to vary. These white, lavender or deep purple flowers give a well known vanilla scent and are an ingredient in essential oil. This plant will winter over with “norther” protection in the warmest areas of Texas but, for the rest of us further north, plan on it being annual or taken in the greenhouse for the winter.

Four o’clocks, which are a true night bloomer are sweetly scented and easy to grow. Probably, too easy to grow. They get wilty without water but it won’t kill them and if you ever decide to dig up an old clump, a back hoe would be handy. The flowers commonly bloom in tropical pink, yellow and red and only open up to emit their scent when the sun starts to set. They can be easily grown from seed or shared by breaking off just a small piece of root.

The smell of honeysuckle is another memory laden smell of (early) summer. Old fashioned yellow or Hall’s honeysuckle always seems to be the most fragrant to me. Like four o’clocks, once you get honey suckle growing on your fence, it’s there for the duration. Don’t be tempted to mix it with “Sweet Autumn” clematis to extend your scent season, as honeysuckle will eventually overpower even this aggressive climber.

The scent of roses is a must for the night garden. Many of the roses which are listed as repeat bloomers actually take a rest during the hot part of the summer and many that do bloom all summer don’t have a scent to begin with, so be advised . . . early summer will be your main rose scent season. La Marque and New Dawn are two of the healthiest scented climbers. Heritage (shell pink) and white Heritage, Saffrano, Penelope, Dutchess de Brabant, Morden Blush, Marie Pavie, Clotilde Soupert and Iceberg are all lighter in color and fragrant. Dame de Coeur is a deep red and Belindas Dream a medium pink, both stronger colors, but good better-than-average bloomers in the heat.

As giant crinum lillies unfurl their flowers each evening, the pollinating hawk moths (often mistaken for a hummingbird) begin to make their rounds. Crinums come in colors of pure white, pink, and wine striped and can grow anywhere. They are expensive because it takes up to 10 years before bulbs grown from seed are ready to sell, but they’re indestructible and even the worst “brown thumb” won’t so much as phase a crinum. Two other night blooming bulbs and tubers that are tops for scent are Mexican tuberose and butterfly ginger.

A couple of more exotic night bloomers are the night blooming cactus, Selenicereus grandiflora and Epiphyllum oxypetalum. These two are often called by interchangeable common names, “madonna plant,” “Dutchman’s pipe,” “night blooming cereus” and “queen of the night.” Their large scented blooms open for one night only and often attract a crowd of aficionados for the event. These plants are easily rooted by placing a piece of leaf on bare dirt. They are not winter hardy and grow very large, needing to be shared or trimmed back to keep them from filling up the whole green house.

Night blooming water lillies bring in the aspect of adding a pond garden among your other night owl plants. White “Trudy Slocum” and brilliant “Red Flare” are two scented night blooming water lillies and there are many other night bloomers with varying degrees of fragrance.

Now, for the “whites.” White flowers and white or gray foliaged plants are the foundation of your moonlight garden. Annual “dusty miller” and perennials: variegated vinca, ground cover artemesia, lamb’s ears, white periwinkle, stemoidia, variegated lamium, silver mound lantana and silver dalea are lower growing whites. Cenizas, “Powis Castle” and “silver king” artemesia, gray germander, white plumbago, variegated privet, white flowering crape myrtles (Natchez and Glendora White) and Arizona Cypress range in height from 3 to 15 feet. Intersperse these whites with your scent plants and get ready to sit back and enjoy a night in the summer garden.

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