Evening blooms provide nighttime entertainment in your own yard
Many of us are still spending most evenings at home. Gardens are not usually thought of as supplying nighttime entertainment, but night-blooming flowers can provide just that.
Opening at dusk and remaining in bloom until the morning, their flowering schedule caters to their specific pollinators, moths. If this sounds unexciting, there is much to discover about these often-unappreciated plants. Some examples of night- or evening-blooming flowers are evening primroses (Oenothera), flowering tobacco (Nicotiana) and 4-o’clocks (Mirabilis). Most are very easy to grow and benefit humans and wildlife.
Despite their names, a number of the flowers are also open in the day and are very showy. Evening primroses release pollen that bees avidly collect during daylight hours and nectar at night. Flowering tobacco and 4-o’clocks open in the late afternoon or early evening and remain open until the next morning. At dusk, the light-colored flowers seem to glow. Fragrance and nectar, held in long floral tubes, is released at night. When the flowers stand at attention at night fully open, moths will almost instantly appear. Their long proboscis, much like a butterfly’s, is able to access deeply held nectar. Going out in the evening with a flashlight reveals a world little noticed. Hawk moths have large iridescent eyes visible with a flashlight as they dart from flower to flower. Put chairs out to watch the nightly spectacle.
Moth caterpillars are a very important staple food for fledgling and adult birds, providing needed fats and protein. One nest of young birds can consume hundreds of caterpillars. Planting plants and flowers that cater to moths can help bird populations. Native plants are the best hosts for moth caterpillars, though adult moths will consume nectar from a range of flowers that cater to them.
There are many species of evening primroses. One of the showiest is Oenothera missouriensis, called Missouri evening primrose, a drought-resistant perennial native to the southern and central United States. It has plentiful and huge 3-5-inch diameter lemon-yellow blooms. Not just showy, the large flowers are a time-lapse photography event, unfurling each evening in only about three to 10 minutes at about 6-7 p.m., just in time for a glass of wine. Most flowers open too slowly to comfortably watch, but this one is a nightly event worth pulling up a chair for.
This species grows well in many places in the western United States. It is about 8 inches high, with narrow shiny green leaves, and sprawls to 2-3 feet wide. It is ideal to include with other lawn-substitute plants. The plant dies to the ground in the winter and should be cut back.
Another couple of little grown and very drought-resistant evening primroses are two white flowered species, Oenothera caespitosa and O. pallida. Oenothera pallida is native to the western United States. It forms a relaxed plant up to 2 feet tall and about as wide with narrow gray leaves. It blooms from spring though most of the summer. The 3-inch wide flowers are fragrant. The tufted evening primrose, Oenothera caespitosa, is similar to O. pallida, but grows in a neat tuft. The flowers are very showy and about 4 inches across. It is native to high deserts in the west.
Both these species need full sun and well drained soil and are excellent to include with other lawn substitute plants. Bees avidly visit the flowers for pollen during the day. Hawk and other moths visit by night.
Flowering tobacco, Nicotiana, is different from other plants in the tobacco family. Most are grown as annuals, but in the North Bay they may behave as short-lived perennials. All are highly attractive to moths. The flowers partially close during the day and fully open in the evening. The deep green leaves are large and sticky with an unattractive smell. A couple of common and showy varieties are Nicotiana alata and N. sylvestris. There are a number of selections of N. alata with flowers ranging from white to green to purple. These plants appreciate compost and regular water. Most are about 3 feet tall and 2 feet wide. Many, especially the white-flowered selections, are highly fragrant at night and can be grown in a container on a patio or deck for this purpose.
The flowers are star-shaped with long constricted nectar tubes. The ‘Lime Green’ selection is not fragrant, but the soft lime flowers are a perfect hue to harmonize with other colors, especially blue or purple. There are also pastel seed selections and one called ‘Perfume Purple.’ Nicotiana sylvestris is a giant among flowering tobaccos. Growing up to 6 feet tall and a couple of feet wide, it has very large downward facing candelabras of highly scented flowers. This plant is a showstopper and sure to attract attention.
All the flowering tobaccos will bloom all summer if spent flowers are removed. Cut the stalks down by about one half when blooms are finishing. They will regrow. Nicotiana sylvestris produces copious amounts of seed if allowed. Collect it in a paper bag for sowing next year or for giving away, or cut down flower stalks before seed is dry.
Petunias are closely related to flowering tobacco, and while the blooms are showy in the day, they fully open and release perfume in the evening, catering to moths, their pollinators. Many of the modern hybrids are not fragrant or are only slightly so. The old-fashioned varieties are much larger and more robust, often growing from 2 to even 4 feet tall and wide. Highly fragrant in the evenings, these are another great plant for moth watching. If plants become leggy, simply cut back by about half, water well and they should regrow.
Many people are familiar with (Mirabilis jalapa) four o’clock or marvel of Peru. This is a colorful, drought-resistant perennial that forms a strong tuberous root. The blooms open in early evening and close in the morning. Coming in many colorful shades and bi-color, these plants can self-perpetuate for many years. A little-grown species native to the Southwest is Angel’s trumpets or Miribilis longiflora. It is about 2 to 3 feet tall and wide with exotic white blooms that have super showy purple-magenta throats and elongated stamens. The very long and graceful floral tubes cater to large moths. It is excellent in the drought-resistant garden. Both species produce lots of seed.
Kate Frey’s column appears every other week in Sonoma Home. Contact Kate at: email@example.com, freygardens.com, Twitter @katebfrey, Instagram @americangardenschool