My blog about the yucca moth last week on our sister site Beautiful Wildlife Gardens got me thinking about night blooming plants and how appropriate they are in the desert Southwest.
Southwestern sunset after a searing sunny summer day is a spectacular time of day. As the blazing sun sinks below the horizon, the air begins to cool down, and little breezes stir. For human desert dwellers, this is the time to sit on the patio and relax in the refreshing evening air. For other desert inhabitants, this is the time to get down to the serious business of eating without being eaten.
In more temperate climates, plants do not welcome the dark. Dark means no sun to drive the photosynthetic pathways that create the sugars they use as building blocks of life. As the sun sinks slowly in the west, most plants shut down systems for the night ahead, often folding flower petals shut. Lucky for us desert dwellers, there are a number of desert plants that do not shut down at night, instead they drench the night air with alluring fragrance, trying to attract some of the nocturnal animals to come and pollinate them.
Night action for desert plants makes sense. Without hot desert sunshine to wilt flowers or dry up nectar, plants have a better chance of finding a pollinator and spreading their genes around. The drawback is that night bloomers have to share the relatively fewer night flying pollinators. Flowers share pollinators by timing when in the season they bloom. This makes a win-win situation for the gardener. By planting a variety of plants, you can have a delightful palate of ever changing fragrances in your evening garden for months.
Plants that are native and bloom at night include, first and foremost (in my mind at least) the official State of Arizona Wildflower, the saguaro cactus. Since planting a saguaro and waiting for it to bloom requires a lengthy time frame, let’s look at some you can plant now and enjoy, if not this year, then next for sure.
Primroses are nice, night bloomers include the three low-growing perennials. The tufted evening primrose (Oenothera caespitosa), Arizona evening primrose, (O. hookerii), and the spring primrose (O. primiveris) are all lovely additions to the landscape. These evening primroses are not related to the garden “primrose” found in big box garden centers. Those non-natives fry to a crisp in our climate.
Aloysias are native shrubs that produce spikes of sweetly fragrant blooms sweetly at night, and flowers linger into the day. Vanilla scented white bush (Aloysia lycioides) and the Wrights bee bush (A. wrightii) are two low-water shrubs for the landscape. The leaves of both have long been used as a culinary herb, tasting much like oregano.
I enjoy jimson weeds as night bloomers (Datura wrightii, D. discolor, and D. quercifolia). They fill the night with a musky fragrance and draw the giant hummingbird moths into the yard to pollinate them. The plants have large dusky green leaves, and they appear to survive on rainfall alone, a real plus in my book. They are poisonous, but that can be a plus too because their presence in the yard helps keep hungry herbivores from examining the area too closely and finding the more tasty plants.
Cacti of many shapes and sizes bloom at night. Some of these are not native to our more northern latitudes, and require winter protection from excessive freezing. I have most of them planted under mesquite trees, which is just enough frost protection. Easter lily cactus (Echinopsis ssp.), harrisia (Harrisia martinii), trailing cactus (Hylocereus undatus), serpent cactus (Peniocereus serpentinus), and the giant flowered selenicerus (Selenicerus grandiflorus). Don’t forget the tall and stately Peruvian apple cactus (Cereus peruvianus). As the name suggests, the fruits are large and delightfully edible. No spines on the fruit, simply slice them open and scoop out the watermelon sweet flesh with a spoon – or your fingers. The juicy flesh is cool and refreshing, and the seeds, like poppy seeds, are tiny and offer a lovely crunch. I skipped over the Arizona queen of the night (Peniocereus greggii) because it deserves a whole column to itself.
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