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Illuminated Plants

Flora that Lights Up Your Garden


Nightlife in the city is all about glitz and glitter. Bright lights to illuminate, scintillate, and titillate. Back in the garden, there are some plants that do their own version of a light show. Of course, most of them can’t produce their own glow, but they are quite adept at reflecting any and all gleams of light that bathe them, and there is an organic reason for this light show.

Plants have been engaged in their evolutionary manifestations for eons. It has taken individual species from a mere few thousand to a staggering several million years to refine their growth patterns. Many plants rely on agents outside themselves to continue their cycle of propagation in quite specific ways. Insects, birds, bats, and even other ground-level mammals have formed partnerships with certain species. What looks like exploitation of the fauna, as the creatures receive some food reward or refuge from the elements, is actually a seduction by the plants themselves. These plants provide nectar, pollen, or shelter so that nocturnal visitors aid their reproduction by carrying pollen grains from one flower to another.

For plants that attract such night pollinators, the most reflective color is employed. White, generally caused by the absence of pigment in plant tissues, results in flowers that reflect any stray beam of light: from stars, the moon, and, increasingly, human lights. Many of these night-blooming plants add sweet fragrance as a further enticement to their evolutionary partners (and additional enjoyment for us). These two characters make them wonderful additions to gardens that will be enjoyed after sunset.

It is not necessary to design the whole garden around these qualities, but placing a few where they can shine (almost literally) after hours can add another magical dimension. Here’s a short list of candidates; many more can be found: moonflower vine (Ipomoea alba); angel’s trumpet and its relatives (Brugmansia cultivars and Datura species)—beware, most of these are quite toxic; white evening primrose (Oenothera caespitosa); flowering tobacco (Nicotiana alata); four o’clocks (Mirabilis jalapa); and night phlox (Zalusianskya capensis). If you have a pond, you may want to try a night-blooming tropical water lily (Nymphaea ‘Wood’s White Knight’, N. ‘Missouri’, or N. ‘Sir Galahad’). Sleepless? Don’t up the calories with a midnight snack; take a stroll in the night garden.

July Tips

• Give new garden specimens a temporary shade structure of a shade-cloth drape or even a movable garden umbrella for a week or so to help them transition from nursery conditions.

• Make a watering station for birds and insects by providing a shallow saucer (decorative or merely functional) of fresh water. Fill to below the top so that small visitors can sip from the exposed edge. Do wash out and refresh every day or so to prevent mosquitoes.

Virginia Hayes, curator of Ganna Walska Lotusland, will answer your gardening questions. Address them to Gardens, The Independent, 122 W. Figueroa St., S.B., CA 93101. Send email to vahayes@lotusland.org.

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