Down to Earth: Night Blooming Plants

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When I travel, I often get offers from gardeners for tours of their herb gardens, which thrill me. A garden is a personal statement, like a favorite family cookbook or a painting.

A few years ago, I made a trip to Longwood Gardens in Philadelphia to spend a few days visiting a friend. While there, she introduced me to several student interns, who invited me to take tours of the 10-by-10-foot plots each is responsible for cultivating. They were all unusual in their own way, but one garden really intrigued me.

The focal point of this garden was an old column, about 7 feet high, placed like a pedestal on a small mound and giving the plot a look of permanence, as if it had once been the site of something architecturally significant.

Everything was scaled down in size. A small path wound up a miniature hill, crossing a tiny dry streambed. The path led through knee-high plantings of herbs, grasses, and ornamental flowering perennials. A substantial clump of brilliant purple-pink echinacea and a ‘Blue Boy’ rosemary shrub in full bloom with sparkling blue flowers added a swath of color. The path wound its way to a miniature, stone-edged “lake” surrounded by a dwarf lawn of emerald green grass that the landscaping student, Todd Sucy, told me he mowed with scissors.

Clumps of prostrate rosemary ‘Lock­wood’, well-clipped globes of ‘Spicy Globe’ basil, and little mounds of olive green sedums surrounded the lake. Mounds of gray catnip and horehound, as well as the bolder green of lemon balm, all clipped to stay small, dotted the lawn like miniature trees. The scale was such that I felt as though I were viewing a pristine landscape from high in the air.

Todd asked me to come back to see the “real” garden at night. That evening, there was no moon, and the hillside leading up to the garden area was alive with thousands of dancing fireflies. By the light of the fireflies and the lights of Longwood Gardens, we could make our way without flashlights.

Todd took out a flashlight the size of a pen and held it under the petals of a Missouri evening primrose. The buttery yellow flower came to life in the dark, glowing brightly. A glowworm in the lawn nearby signaled in return with its own natural light. At the base of a catmint, the light made the gray-green leaves glow and the blue-purple spires of flowers look like sapphire rockets.

As we walked, Todd, with his light, showed off the woolly surface of frosty blue clary sage leaves. He spotlighted the flamelike scarlet petals of a bee balm, then illuminated the pale yellow flowers of an evening primrose before plunging the little light into the miniature lake to reveal several goldfish. Night-flying moths that had been invisible to us before darted over the pool, animated by the watery light.

The colors of Todd’s garden were alive and vibrant in the rays of the flashlight. He’d planned the plot with the idea of planting herbs and flowers that bloom at night, including moonflower, daturas, several kinds of evening primrose, four-o’clocks, and others that offer their scents at night to attract pollinators.

“Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have tiny lights hidden all over a garden in order to see this beauty?” I asked. But Todd maintained, “The search in the darkness is more interesting than just stepping outside to see a garden all lighted. It’s the discovery I enjoy.”

Although that garden is gone now, tilled under for the next student, I still think about it. Sometimes I take a little flashlight out into my garden just to spotlight one special flower or to see the jeweled colors come alive in the darkness. During the summer night, the garden is quiet and peaceful, the air cool, and with one tiny light, I can see what’s hidden from the noonday sun.

Jim Long is an herbalist and the owner of Long Creek Herb Farm in Oak Grove, Arkansas.