“Why are there no pink or white flowers in your garden?” my friend the late Betty Wold asked me one summer morning. Betty was a lifelong herbalist and educator from Oklahoma, and we were taking a tour of my gardens.
I explained I didn’t really care for pink or white flowers very much and so chose only the more vibrant colors I liked. “Besides,” I said, “I try to have only plants that pay me back for the space I give them, either by providing food, seasoning, or medicine. The white and pink flowers seem kind of wimpy to me.”
“But if you have only darker colored flowers, none of those show up in the moonlight,” she chided me with a laugh. “How can you have a picnic in the moonlight without the night colors?”
Over the years I’ve come to appreciate the more subtle floral colors, not for their daytime hues, but for how magically they transform after sunset, even in simple starlight. And all of those brilliant blue and crimson flowers I love in the daylight literally disappear from view at night.
I sometimes stroll through my garden enjoying how different it is at night. Not only do the white flowers glow with unexpected light, the pinks and lighter yellows seem to have a vibrancy totally absent in daylight. Flowers I’ve overlooked during the day, such as white cosmos, appear to actually glow at night.
A moonlit garden has a different set of fragrances, as well, some subtle, some pronounced. In the heat of the day, many essences are lost to our senses because the heat evaporates them so quickly. At night fragrances are considerably more noticeable. Dianthus, of any color, which has lovely, clove-scented fragrance by day, is absolutely delicious at night.
Plants such as the often overlooked yucca even change shape after dark! In the daytime the waxy, cream colored blossoms hang down like little bells. But at night when the evening has cooled, the young, recently-opened flowers turn somewhat upward, releasing their scent to attract the evening moths that pollinate them.
I have light-colored gravel pathways in my garden, which are unremarkable by day, but are almost like lighted walks by moonlight. In the background I have a little fishpond fountain, and the sound of trickling water adds a peaceful backdrop to the allure of the garden.
The simpler elements of my garden, such as a light gray limestone bench, look most inviting by the full moon. During the day there are often so many interruptions, noises and responsibilities that I seldom get to sit and actually enjoy my garden space. But at night, when the world is quiet and others’ demands on my time have ceased, I like to retreat to my nighttime garden. Many times I’ve sat on the bench with a midnight snack, enjoying the serenity, and sometimes, when friends are willing, we have a picnic by moonlight.
There are a myriad of plants to choose from which magically transform themselves from almost invisible in sunlight to glowing performers at night. Any plant you choose with the name, ‘alba’ after it, will be white, such as Rose Campion (Lychnis coronaria ‘Alba’) for example, or Dianthus deltoides ‘Alba’. White, yellow and pink hollyhocks shine like subtle beacons of lights, even in hushed starlight. Glowing additions of white Echinaceas (like ‘White Swan’ and ‘Fragrant Angel’) seem to pop into heightened reality at night. Angel’s Trumpets (Datura inoxia), white salvia (Salvia coccinea ‘Snow Nymph’) and Shasta Daisies all show up like little walkway lights.
Even the gray-colored plants, Gray Santolina (Santolina chamaecyparissus) or Curlicue Wormwood (Artemisia versicolor ‘Seafoam’) seem to awaken at night, as does Dusty Miller (Senecio cineraria) and Curry Plant (Helichrysum italicum). Plants with fuzzy, gray leaves like my favorite, Silver Sage (Salvia argentea) seem more alive and vivacious under the moon. All of the clary sages look fanciful at night as well. Silver-Leaf Creeping Thyme and Dwarf Ribbon Grass (Phalaris arundinacea ‘Dwarf Garters’) glow subtly at night. And the common native plant, Mullein (Verbascum thapsus) is most showy at night with its yellow flowers and fuzzy, light colored leaves and stems.
Any plant with silver in its name, like Silver Southernwood (Artemisia abrotanum ‘Silver’), is a good choice too. Vines such as Moonflower (Ipomoea alba) add additional charm. The Moonflower’s 6 inch diameter blossoms are open only at night when they release a rich, enticing fragrance and attract fascinating large moths. The flowers themselves, on a moonlit evening, are so deliciously bright they appear to be lit from inside and almost as beacons floating in the evening air.
A moonlight garden should have lots of fragrant things to smell, including plants to walk on along the pathways. Creeping Thymes, such as Caraway and Lemon Thyme, are a good addition because while their scents may not be noticeable in the daylight, you will become aware of their fragrances at night, when your senses are more attuned.
Other plants to add for moonlight viewing and fragrance include White Spider flower (Cleome hassleriana ‘Helen Campbell’), white peonies, white roses, and Night Phlox (Zaluzianskya capensis), which is also called Midnight Candy — a clue to its charming appeal. Any of the Evening Primroses, (Oenothera spp.), including our Missouri native (Oenothera macrocarpa), send forth their fragrance in the evening.
There are special considerations to making a moonlight garden. First, you need full sun for most plants. Also, a spot that gives full sun will generally provide full moonlight as well, and you don’t want big moon shadows blocking out the night light. I like to bunch the brighter whites together rather than scatter them about. The duller whites and yellows can be clustered as well. These will cause the darker colors of plants to be seen in daylight, while at night those contrasting colors come into their own, as the red, blue and orange flowers recede in the darkness.
Thanks to my friend Betty, I have learned to appreciate a walk in the garden by moonlight, enjoying beauty not visible by day. All of the colors I hadn’t earlier enjoyed are now the stars of my night time garden, and they shine brightest when the rest of the world is resting.
You can find Jim Long’s books and products at Baker Creek Seeds and on his website, LongCreekHerbs.com.