The Dance of Night Flowers

As a “person of curiosity,” I’m easily thrown off course when little garden events prompt questions.

On summer evenings in my youth, I was sometimes encouraged to sit on the porch with grownups, to be mesmerized on rare occasions as my great-grandmother’s treasured heirloom “night blooming Cereus” unfurled its large, exotic, fragrant evening flowers. Now that’s a way to hook kids on the mysteries of the garden! And I was also shown some of the creatures that billowed or crept out of the shrubs at night to pollinate those flowers, or to hunt the pollinators.

Night blooming cereus – a tropical tree dwelling Epiphyllum

Anyway, one recent sultry summer evening, watching evening primrose flowers open at dusk and basking in the heady bouquet of four o’clocks in the still night air should have been soothing to my creative right brain. Instead, the interwoven dance of flowers, fragrance, and large, hovering sphinx moths flitting around between newly-opened flowers and avoiding voracious night-feeding geckos, kicked my analytical left brain into overdrive. 

Evening Primrose opens only at night

One of my so-far unanswered question is, what makes some plants flower at night? In addition to the primrose and four o’clocks, other of my garden’s evening flowers are moonflower vine, angel trumpets (both Datura and Brugmansia) and a scraggly night-blooming cereus (Epiphyllum) grown from a cutting from my great-grandmother; there are more, of course, in gardens of others, plus many daytime flowers that remain open all night (Cleome comes to mind).

Truth is, we still don’t know why they open at night. Best theories are that over thousands of years some plants have adapted techniques for avoiding moisture loss in hot, dry climates; and that some evolved light-colored, fragrant blossoms which open late to attract shy pollinators that venture out at night to avoid predators that are less aggressive in the darkness. Except for those insatiable, lightening-fast geckos, of course, which by the way have gotten rid of ALL the roaches that used to frequent my back garden.

Camouflaged night-feeding gecko

Anyway, while jonesing for explanations to these minor mysteries, I pored over my faded plant physiology class notes, trying to rewrap my old head around long-forgotten technical concepts.

Mysteries of Life (cover from The Moody Blues album Every Good Boy Deserves Favour)

Not to get too technical here, but plants have light sensors, called phytochromes – biological switches that turn night/day responses on and off. Full sun exposes phytochromes to lots of visible red light, which energizes plants into active growth mode; shaded or late afternoon sun has more far-red wavelengths, which tell plants it’s time to transition into night mode.

Here’s how plants tell time: Certain compounds produced during daylight hours break down slowly overnight, enabling plants to chemically “know” how many hours they spend in darkness; yeah, plants tell time by hours of darkness, not hours of daylight. Plus, as nights get successively shorter or longer, plants keep track of this stored information to gradually prepare for changes needed in approaching seasons. Horticulturists take advantage of this by using extra lighting or shading to trick poinsettias, Easter lilies, chrysanthemums, and other holiday flowers to bloom out of season.

The physics are interesting as well: Different stimuli, including temperature and humidity, trigger plants into pressurizing fluids that move into or out of “hinge cells” at the base of leaves and flowers, causing them to get bigger or smaller, longer or shorter. This is what crank flowers to open and close, leaves of some plants to fold and unfold, and stems to bend towards light.

Ah, I can go on and on until our ears start to bleed. I just think that science is so grand! Helps me sort out what’s happening, if not why. But I’ve got to relax now, try to get back to just soaking in the evening garden’s natural sensory allures.

(Sitting on the porch swing, I hear someone murmur “Don’t those four o’clocks smell nice?”)

Four o’clocks – super fragrant evening flowers
Four o’clocks visitor (photo by Paul Ingram)

Booglified Garden Plants

Booglify: Felder verb; to become mushy after freeze and thaw. “My canna’s leaves booglified into slimy cell goo.”

Far as I know, there ain’t a formal word for what happens when, come Autumn’s first freeze, summer plants melt into a putrid glob. But it’s nasty.

Purple Heart (Tradescantia pallida) drips at first freeze
At first freeze, purple heart (Tradescantia pallida) droops, then drips. Then stinks.

Want technical? Me neither – studied plant physiology in college, and can make your eyes cross with esoterica. Short version, with apologies to Professor Price, is that in general plants are organisms made of living, multiplying cells with fairly rigid walls filled with gooey protoplasm made of tiny functional bits suspended in water. Water between the cells holds soluble nutrients, proteins, enzymes, salts, and other stuff which normally moves in and out of cells to keep things running smoothly.

In cold-climate plants, some of the substances act like antifreeze and some plants can shift them around to reduce cells’ drying out or bursting; some plants don’t.

I do understand the horror. Continue reading “Booglified Garden Plants”

Peek at RHS Chatsworth Flower Show ’18

Welcome to RHS Chatsworth Flower Show
Welcome to RHS Chatsworth Flower Show

I never take for granted the privilege afforded me by the Royal Horticulture Society to attend its world-famous flower shows, especially on Press Day when a few selected journalists are allowed to mingle with and interview designers, horticulturists, craftspeople, and vendors. Over the years I have visited behind the scenes numerous shows including Chelsea, Hampton Court, Tatton Court, Harlow Carr, Sissinghurst, Wisley, and others; in their unique ways, all are just…WOW.

Sculpture by Fantasywire
Sculpture by Fantasywire

This summer kicked off with a new one for me, held for the second year at Chatsworth, a magnificent house and gardens nestled high in the Peak District of Derbyshire, central England. Though last year’s Press Day was closed early due to horrendous downpours – what the British correctly call “chucking it down” – this year the weather was perfect. Continue reading “Peek at RHS Chatsworth Flower Show ’18”

Winter Wonders

I’ve gardened in sunny South California, where weather reporters are all but unable to forecast anything out of the ordinary – there’s a joke in San Diego that seasons are more about whether or not it rains.

Light Frost
Light Frost

But for the past eight years of shuttling between my gardens in Mississippi and Lancashire, northern England, it seems to me that there are mainly two distinct seasons in the British Isles – a brilliant if cool summer with long, long days, and a seemingly never-ending wet, chilly winter, with fairly drawn-out segues of what pass for spring and fall.

My Mississippi garden, on the other hand, has five seasons, from a mild occasionally-frozen mid-winter through two nearly imperceptibly drawn-out and overlapping springs (early and late, with completely different sets of weather and flowers); a long, torrid, breathtakingly-humid summer with temperatures that remain warmer at night than England rarely ever even gets up to in the daytime; and a month or so of subtle changes in Autumn color.

No matter. There are countless combinations of evocative accessories to carry gardens in all climates through the changes of weather, and weather-tolerant plants to boot.

Mississippi Snow
Mississippi Snow

Continue reading “Winter Wonders”

Dr. Dirt’s Legacy

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Leon “Dr. Dirt” Goldsberry

For some ten years or so, a strange and beautiful thing happened between two men who had practically nothing in common other than a love in growing and joy in sharing simple garden plants.

This is saying a lot, but “Dirt” was without a doubt one of the most overflowing humans I have ever encountered. Bigger-than-life he was – tall, colorful, thoughtful, bawdy, humorous, and, yes, easily outraged and loudly opinionated (usually spot-on).

First met him by accident, while cruising backstreets of small-towns looking for interesting cottage gardens and the pass-along plants usually found in them – one of the best ways to uncover hardy, garden-variety plants.

His unmissable garden, nestled beside a railroad crossing in a small town in rural Mississippi, stopped me in my tracks. The outstanding “total yard show” was overstuffed and overflowing with kaleidoscopic combinations of plants and home-made yard art made from found objects. Its care-taker – a tall, lanky man with a do-rag on his head and a Kaiser blade in hand – met me at the gate. He wouldn’t invite me in, much less tell me his name, instructing me to just call him Dirt.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Dirt Garden in Autumn

Continue reading “Dr. Dirt’s Legacy”

Fastest Garden on Earth

Moving Pollinator Garden
Moving Pollinator Garden

For the past thirty years – since my now-grown son was still in a child restraint seat – my old antique pickup truck has had a diminutive but productive potager garden overstuffed with flowers, herbs, and vegetables. That’s right, the working truck has a working garden in the back!

Truck Garden in Mid-Summer
Truck Garden in Mid-Summer

I started it out from frustration with one too many people whining about not having a place to garden. Thinking “What’d be the hardest place, the acid test, to give it a go?” I decided to try it in the back of my pickup truck.

Continue reading “Fastest Garden on Earth”

Passalong Bulbs

Bulbs, tubers, corms, whatever – they are solid, fleshy little things that you plant in the ground and they sprout roots, leaves, and often flowers. Most come and go throughout the year; some are hardy outside in the ground, some are tender and have to be replanted every year.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Hardy red Amaryllis

Classic passalong bulbs for the Southeast include daffodils, painted Arum, huge Crinum lilies, low-growing star flower (Ipheion), red Amaryllis, Lycoris (both the red “spider lily” and pink “naked ladies”),  Spanish bluebells, summer snowflake (Leucojum, with little white bells with green dots, often confused with snowbells which grow better farther north), magenta hardy Gladiolus (G. byzantinus), tall summer-flowering Philippine lily, hidden ginger (Curcuma), elephant ears, garlic, and tiger lily. There are others of course!

 

Passalong Plants

night blooming cereus

They’re plants that everyone grows, but hardly anyone buys…

Each has a strong value or combination of values -pretty, fragrant, extra productive, long-flowering, family heirloom, fascinating history, whatever – making it desirable by a lot of different kinds of gardeners.

Each is easy to grow without special soil preparation, extra watering or other horticultural finesse, and grows well in a wide range of conditions.

Each is relatively insect and disease free – I mean, who wants a plant that is always boogered up?

And, most importantly, each is easy to propagate by seed, division, or cutting, else it won’t be easy to share.

Hens and chicks (Graptopetalum)
Hens and Chicks (Graptopetalum)

 

Types of Passalong Plants

Bulbs

Perennials

Annuals