• T.M. O’Shaughnessy

Moonflower gazing


PHOTO COURTESY CREATIVE COMMONS/BENJAMIN GRAVES

An example of a moonflower captured when it’s at its peak – the middle of the night.

When I first heard about moonflowers, I thought it was something made-up. A vine with big white blooms that only open by the light of the moon? This seemed fantastic beyond belief. That the flowers would further be heavily scented but only at night seemed yet another mystery. I just didn’t believe it, especially during those early years of my first gardens which were unimaginatively planted with rows of marigolds in two heights.

PHOTO BY T.M. O’SHAUGHNESSY

Moonflower vines need a trellis or other kind of support as they grow fast.

But now, a few decades later, I have finally bitten the bullet and am growing moonflowers on my balcony. And, wow, so far so good. In fact, the vine is growing so rapidly and forcefully, I’m starting to hope the balcony railing is going to be okay under all that foliage. My wicker chair is right beside it and I have visions of waking up after one of those wicker chair naps entirely bound by vines and wondering what I did with the machete.

Kissing cousin to those heavenly blue morning glories, Ipomoea alba is the botanical name for this unexpectedly night-blooming flower. Perennial in tropical climates, it’s an annual in our parts but grows very robustly and is a prolific self-seeder, I hear.

When planting it out, you just soften the hard casing of the seeds by soaking them overnight in warm water and then you choose a spot (or pot) with fairly ordinary soil. The moonflower won’t thank you for rich soil or for giving it wet feet by watering it too much. It also doesn’t mind being forgotten now and then.

But you won’t forget it for long.

I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a vine grow like this. And I’m looking forward to seeing its large white flowers in that classic morning glory ‘cone’ shape. Inhaling its perfume by the light of the moon will be the icing on the cake. Because what an exotic member of the garden this vine is, attracting night feeding pollinators. You might even lure the venerable sphinx moth to your moonflower vines – those enormous moths that can seem like hummingbirds.

Some of the quirks about the moonflower include the fact that, at times, the long days of light in high summer can impair its ability to flower because it needs more night time, or cloudy days, to truly flourish. So depending on where you’ve planted it, it may not bud and bloom until later in the summer – and until then you will certainly need strong support for the rampaging vine.

Most garden pundits seem to advise planting moonflowers with some regular, day-blooming morning glories so that you can have flowers both by day and by night. In the meantime, it will cover your trellis or balcony railings with lovely heart-shaped leaves and grow measurably each day, creating lots of suspense for the first moonlit bloom. The only problem is, how do we take good photographs of it at night?

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