If I have failed as a tomato farmer, I have excelled in the realm of night bloomers, more specifically, I have excelled in the growing and tending of the moonflower.
Before I started running the roads with my pal, Alice, I was unfamiliar with moonflowers. I had spent an evening years ago in my old boss’s backyard waiting for a similarly named plant to pop with blooms—also called moonflower—but this is not the same moonflower of which I now speak.
That was a shrub covered with trumpety looking blooms that dangled down and were supposed to give off a lemony fragrance at the exact moment of eruption. Everyone ooh’ed and ah’ed and I kept missing it, missed it even as I moved my lawn chair closer and closer to the action. I finally ooh’ed and ah’ed, too, just to fit in, but I never managed to share the experience.
But driving around with Alice one spring, she insisted we stop by this nursery and that one, in search of moonflower vines. We found them, scraggly-looking things, and then we plonked down an unbelievable amount of money for each, and took them home, and with the slimmest of instructions from Alice, I stuck mine in the ground.
For the longest time nothing happened.
There was a shoot—a long tendril that crept along at a pace so slow I thought surely I had chosen a sick plant. It was tough that first summer remembering which was the moon vine and which was that invasive weed vine that shows up and takes over, especially after a rain—the weed with the large heart-shaped leaf, not the variated green and pointy weed vine.
Patience, however, is rewarded.
Sometime in late July, the moon vine just takes off, climbs the pillars of the porch, overtakes the trellis, wraps around the downspout and reaches toward the roof line, and SNAP! just like that, the flowers come along.
At first they look like tiny soft-serve ice cream cones, all tightly twisted, a soft pale cream, tinged with the faintest of lime green. Then, about dusk, they loosen up, work to open, and they do, but still a little sad looking, like a crumpled tissue.
Peek again just as night falls completely and you will be rewarded with a delicate flower, the size of a dessert plate, no wrinkles now, but a perfect bloom adorned with a spiral center, the pale tracing of green even fainter now, and it is a thing so beautiful it stops the heart and arrests the breathing for a moment or two.
And this delicate, perfect moonflower is not alone. She has her friends with her, some evenings two friends, , some evenings, a dozen. There in the dark, they glow, or we think they do, because they should, really, they should.
They last the night, that is all. New flowers set and spiral, destined to bloom when the sun goes down, only to fold up and fall from the vine with the first rays of morning sun.
And so it continues until late in the summer, until autumn arrives.
Ipomoea alba—moonflower or moon vine —shares its lineage with the morning glory, and is native to the New World—therefore, completely our own. No cultivar this, no coveted and pirated plant brought in a ship’s hold to recreate the gardens of Europe, the exoticism of Asia. Just a joyous little flower with a night owl’s sensibility, brightening up little corners of darkness here and there.
Much later, when the blooms are spent and there is nothing more to see here, the seed pods will be ready for harvest. The seeds are poisonous but then, what is beauty without a little danger? Research tells me moonflowers are easy to grow from seed, and this will be my late spring project. If I fail—and it is a possibility for which I am prepared—I know where to purchase new plants.
But for now, I visit my moonflowers from dusk until dark, counting the blooms, admiring them against the dark foliage, against the black night. I talk to them, toss compliments their way.
I do it every night.
Because in the morning, they will be gone.