Hot 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, in the words of 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 – maybe a warm, sheltered corner where you might sit on a mild summer night.
Another lovely night-bloomer is Queen of the Night, Cestrum nocturnum. Flowers are tiny and greenish, but the scent carries up to 100m. It’s an overpowering, love-or-hate scent with older flowers developing a rank, privet-y tinge which 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 are advertising 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 the Latin 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, a hardy annual climber for full sun, 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 – humans give them a helping hand for better crops. Plant from seed in August.