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Evening Stars
by Des Kennedy
by Des Kennedy

Des Kennedy is a celebrated public speaker, having performed at numerous conferences, schools, festivals, botanical gardens, art galleries, garden shows and wilderness gatherings in Canada and the U.S. His humour, irreverence and passion for gardening and the natural world have made him a 'must see' speaker in demand across the country.

July 13, 2003

In searing hot weather gardeners with any sense adjust their schedules to become creatures of the evening, which is all for the best, as the late summer garden is especially fine at dusk. At our place, night hawks skim across the evening sky and bats flit in and out of sight. A hushed, rich fullness descends, sweet fragrances linger on the air and the garden exhales a cooling freshness after the heat of the day.

Several plants that have hung about looking nondescript and vapid now come into their own, none more dramatically than the common evening primrose. A metre or more tall, with coarse, hairy leaves and stems, this wildflower has little to commend it by day, but come early evening, it puts on a spectacular show. One by one its new flower heads, scrolled like cheap cigars, begin to tremble and unfurl. Hints of yellow appear, as when a butterfly emerges from its puparium.The flower seems to pause for a moment and then in a sudden swirl of movement unfurl fully to a beautiful pale yellow trumpet.

Here’s how American plantswoman Helen Field Fisher described this exceptional moment: ". . . surely no flower is more dramatic in its opening. Like glamorous night-club ladies its blossoms wait for exactly the right light effects in sunset colours, then suddenly throw back their green cloaks and swirl wide the skirts of their golden evening gowns."

Fisher goes on to say that the genus name, Oenethera, means "wine scented" and that "when the heady fragrance of these flowers floats across the garden, the night moths quickly gather.

Evening primroses are a native biennial that was long dismissed as "common." Some gardening encyclopedias still don’t bother to mention it, and one discounts it as "a weedy plant growing over much of the U.S." and of passing interest only because "the root was eaten as a vegetable by Indians."

It’s yet another of the North American wildflowers that needed to go to Europe to get a pedigree. There it found a place of prominence in discriminating gardens, so that British writer Penelope Hobhouse praises its "pale yellow flowers glowing at dusk" and recommends a "haphazard natural seeding" alongside blue ceanothus or purple-leaved cotinus.

I doubt that evening scented stocks have ever stuck their noses into a nightclub, and certainly they’ve never made sensational entrances in a swirl of golden skirts. Scrawny little annuals from the mustard family, native to southeastern Europe and Asia, these are not what you’d call high visibility plants. Working hastily along the front of a border, I’ve sometimes almost torn them out as weeds with their scraggly little lance-shaped leaves and inconspicuous purple flowers. They seem to have an air of truculent defeat during the heat of day.

But what a transformation when you step out of an evening and experience their sweet heady scents floating through the garden. It’s hard to believe that the puny flowers can produce such abundant perfume and cast it so widely.

They’re fussy little customers in their own way. If allowed to become rootbound in pots in spring, they’ll often fail to bloom later on. Planted out, they require frequent watering, full sun and rich soil.

A third star in the twilight garden, nicotiana is not as drab by day as the other two, but still at its finest in the gloaming. Sometimes called "flowering tobacco," it’s a member of the often-disreputable nightshade family. Most commonly planted are strains of Nicotiana alata which in the wild grows about a metre tall with large, fragrant white blooms that open at dusk. It’s been hybridized extensively to bear flowers that remain open by day in a variety of colours including pure white, an appealing lime green, cream, salmon, rose and red, all the way out to crimsons and purples. However these "improvements" come at a cost -- reduction or loss of fragrance. For evening scent especially, growers recommend ‘Grandiflora’ which has large white flowers shaded yellow that show well at twilight.

With lots of space available, we prefer the big Nicotiana sylvestris, a native of Argentina that sometimes stands two metres tall with large tobacco-like leaves. Its slender tubular white flowers hang in tiered clusters and are tailor-made for hummingbirds. A bit downcast-looking on hot summer days, it perks up in the late afternoon, emitting a fine fragrance and assuming a stately grandeur that in Hobhouse’s opinion makes it "almost as beautiful as a lily."

The nicotianas continue flowering until frost. We’ve had sylvestris survive the occasional mild winter to bloom again -- nicotianas are perennial in warmer climes but are treated as annuals in our northern gardens.

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