On summer nights, some plants come into their own. Daytime flowers are bold and brash, relying on bright colours to attract pollinating insects; night-blooming flowers are more subtle, white or cream-coloured to glow in the dark. Often insignificant in looks, they announce their presence with blasts of powerful perfume.
One such is brugmansia, sometimes mistakenly called datura (that’s a related soft-stemmed plant, while brugmansia is a woody shrub; both are poisonous). I grew the double white Brugmansia × candida flore plena by a verandah where, according to grower Russell Fransham, it poured out “a river of perfume from sunset to sunrise, as if a tap has been turned on”. Fransham grows brugmansia of various colours at his Whangarei nursery (see his catalogue at subtropical.co.nz). They are frost-tender, so plant in a large pot in the Wellington area, or against a building — perhaps a warm, sheltered corner where you might sit on a mild summer night.
Another lovely night-bloomer is queen of the night, Cestrum nocturnum. Its flowers are tiny and greenish, but the scent carries up to 100m. It’s an overpowering, love-or-hate smell, with older flowers developing a rank, privety tinge that one disenchanted gardener described as “a blend of artificial cherry air freshener with undertones of urinal cake”. You won’t find this queen at a garden centre: she’s officially an ‘unwanted organism’ and it’s an offence to breed, propagate or sell her. She’s highly toxic when eaten, and becoming a pest weed in Auckland. Still, if you’re strolling down a street one summer night and get blasted by an untraceable perfume, it may be the queen of the night.
In the night garden
These plants advertise to bats and moths rather than bees and butterflies:
Night-scented stock Matthiola bicornis. An annual flower with small, dainty purplish flowers packing a huge night-time punch. Great for pots or sunny spots, especially beneath bedroom windows. Sow now to flower next summer. Seeds available from kingsseeds.co.nz
Night-blooming Cereus Stunning cacti whose white flowers open at night.
Evening primrose Oenothera biennis. As its scientific name suggests, this forms a rosette of leaves in the first year, then a tall flower spike in the second (it may then die, but usually self-seeds freely). Lemon-yellow flowers open at dusk, though they’re not especially fragrant. The popular oil is made from the seeds.
White Moonflower Ipomoea alba. Like a giant white morning glory, this is a hardy annual climber for full sun. Seeds available from kingsseeds.co.nz
Hue Lagenaria vulgaris These gourds brought by early Polynesian settlers need a long growing season. The white flowers, opening at night, are moth-pollinated — gardeners should give them a helping hand for better crops. Plant from seed in August.
Queen of the night, Cestrum nocturnum, has flowers that may look insignificant but they pack a punch to the nose.
Brugmansia, or angel’s trumpets, have a heavenly scent at night.