AFTER DARK ON a warm summer evening, the garden is a magical place. As dusk falls, shimmering white and light-colored blooms pick up the sun’s light as it bounces off the surface of the moon, an accessible bit of botanical wizardry that animates the night garden. Darker, less-reflective shades, like deep red, plum or dark blue, recede into shadows and vanish as the day fades, blurring boundaries.
Best of all, the air fills with fragrance. Many night-flying pollinators, like moths, bats and the occasional beetle, navigate the dark by their sense of smell and are attracted to fragrant, pale, nectar-rich blossoms — a natural efficiency that we gardeners can use to craft an after-hours sensory feast.
The following flowers are shining stars in the evening landscape:
● Angel’s trumpet (Brugmansia) is the queen of the night garden: a large shrub or small tree with lush tobaccolike leaves and large, pendent trumpets that spill their scent each evening, filling the air with an almost-intoxicating fragrance. In addition to white, different varieties have pale yellow or peach flowers. Native to the tropics, angel’s trumpet is a heat lover and borderline hardy in our region. Plants can be grown in containers with winter protection, but I’ve also seen in-ground plantings flourishing in the heat of a south-facing wall survive from year to year.
● Star jasmine (Trachelospermum jasminoides) is more of a wallflower, literally. The vining shrub (or shrubby vine) will clothe a wall or fence with glossy evergreen foliage and thousands of starry white blossoms. The flowers are fragrant day and night, but their scent intensifies after dark. A well-established hedge near my bedroom window tickles my dreams all summer long.
● Flowering tobacco (Nicotiana alata) might not be the beauty of the evening garden, with lanky stems and sticky foliage, but all is forgiven when the plant’s nodding trusses of white tubular blooms open each evening, flooding the garden with their sweet scent. Even though the seed is minute, flowering tobacco is easy to grow, and plants often will self-sow in the garden. Note: This plant is a different species from compact bedding varieties that come in a range of (scentless) flower colors.
● Petunia (Petunia x hybrida) — yes, petunias! Old-fashioned species were grown as much for their fragrance as for their rambling vines. Today we can select compact ground covers or trailing varieties in a range of brilliant (sometimes alarming) colors. But breeding work focused on form and color often has left scent behind — except sometimes it hasn’t. Use your nose to browse petunia-laden nursery shelves to pick out plants that retain their fragrant lineage.
The caveat is, different plants express their perfume at different times of the day and under different conditions, like on an especially warm day or with increased humidity. (Now I’m dreaming of a pop-up night nursery devoted to fragrant plants.)
Site your scented twilight garden around a sitting area or patio where walls or hedges will trap fragrances and bank the heat from the day — the fragrance of most night-scented flowers is even more potent with a little warmth. Then, as the heat of the day recedes, make time to slow down to allow the cooling damp of the evening garden refresh you. As an added benefit: Twilight dims nagging visions of garden chores that await tending.