What a Little Moonlight Can Do: Revealing a side of the garden that only comes out at night

By day, your garden is a place of bright colors, alive with butterflies, birds, and bees. Under the light of the moon and stars, though, another side of the garden emerges: It becomes a place of mystery, and a simple stroll brings surprises at every step.

My moonlight garden began in our bedroom with a single flower, a night-blooming cereus (Hylocereus undatus) that had been a gift from a friend. Late one night, my husband and I returned from a trip to find the house filled with the sweetest perfume, and tracked the scent to the gangly, bare-stemmed cactus that lived on a sunny windowsill in our bedroom. It had held a single 4-inch-long bud when we left, and now that bud had spilled open into a huge flower of incredible beauty, with rows of cupped creamy white petals like a waterlily and a frothy mass of stamens in the center. The scent was exquisite and the salad-plate-size flower was sublime.

What a Little Moonlight Can Do

That cereus is now 15 years old, and every summer it’s the queen of my moonlight garden. It lives in a big clay pot at the corner of the porch, and throughout the summer it surprises me with wonderful blossoms, usually on full moon nights. Around the corner, a wood half-barrel is planted with moonflowers (Ipomoea alba, all zones) that clamber up the side of the house beside the table where we often sit with friends on a summer night. These annual vines, sometimes called “evening glories,” have big white trumpet-shaped flowers that open like parasols at dusk, releasing a light perfume that wafts through the night air.
Watching blossoms open before your eyes is a wonderful treat in the moonlight garden. You’ve probably seen the yellow flowers of common evening primrose (Oenothera biennis, Zones 4-10), a knee-high native American biennial, along roadsides of eastern North America, but did you know that the flowers open at twilight with a “pop!” so loud you can hear it? “Magic primroses” have been the excuses for many a summer eve’s gathering. We pull up lawnchairs along the front of the garden and wait for the sepals to snap back and the flowers to twist open with a burst of lemony fragrance that attracts big night-flying sphinx moths within minutes.

In addition to these flowers that “perform” at night, many of your garden regulars will reveal a new side of themselves by light of the moon. Instead of being lost among the vivid colors of day, a tall clump of ‘Mt. Fuji’ garden phlox (Phlox paniculata, Zones 3-9) or a mound of white petunias will almost glow at night. Shasta daisies (Leucanthemum x superbum, Zones 5-10) light the garden like white stars sprinkled here and there, and white ruffled Japanese iris (Iris ensata ‘Alba’, ‘Innocence’, and other cultivars, Zones 4-9) flutter above the foliage like diaphanous moths.

Your moonlight garden can be delightfully fragrant. When the sun sinks in the west, the white pendant trumpets of flowering tobacco (Nicotiana sylvestris, all zones) lift, making it easy for night-flying moths to collect their nectar, and release a whiff of fragrance. The white flowers of night phlox (Zaluzianskya capensis, all zones), are easy to overlook in the daytime, but it’s impossible to ignore the delicious tropical scent they emit at night. The honeyed fragrance of low-growing alyssum (Lobularia maritima, all zones) can have a powerful presence, and honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica, Zones 4-10) can bring the sweet air of summer evenings in the Old South to your garden.

The moonlight garden is as much for the romantic as it is for the pragmatic β€” a collection of white-flowered and night-blooming plants extends the hours of pleasure you can enjoy in your garden. Your moonlight garden will be waiting for you after a long day at the office, no matter how long ago the sun went to bed. And in the night, garden weeds become invisible β€” just part of the dark background that sets off the night bloomers. Without their nagging presence, the garden is completely relaxing. On a warm night, I sink into the garden bench, inhale deeply, and feel the day’s tensions easing away.

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