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Missouri Environment & Garden


David Trinklein
University of Missouri
Plant Science & Technology
(573) 882-9631

Twilight Gardens

David Trinklein
University of Missouri
(573) 882-9631

Published: July 1, 2010

Few things are more relaxing than a peaceful walk through a luminous, fragrant garden. Unfortunately, many of us find that by the time we arrive home from work and tend to evening responsibilities there is little daylight remaining to enjoy our gardens. Not to worry, there are ways to solve this dilemma. Twilight gardens are designed to be at their best at dusk, when natural light is fading.

An effective twilight garden begins with the appropriate selection of plants. Since light (natural or artificial) is very limited in the evening, plants wellsuited for twilight gardens are those with light-colored leaves (e.g. silver or grey) and flowers that are white (or nearly white) in color to maximize light reflection. The human eye perceives objects when light is reflected from them. Since light-colored objects reflect more of the light that strikes them than dark objects, white, grey and silver colors appear to “glow” in dim light thanks to their ability to reflect light.

Also, it is preferable for twilight garden plants to have flowers that are open after the sun sets. Some flowers display a diurnal rhythm of opening in the morning and closing in the afternoon in order to protect their delicate flower parts after day-flying pollinators have stopped working. Conversely, those species that rely on nocturnal pollinators frequently open only at night or let their flowers open “24/7”.

Since visual enjoyment of a twilight garden is limited to the subtle tones of reflected light, additional appeal can be added to the garden by selecting flowers that are fragrant in addition to being open at night. Fragrance adds yet another dimension of interest and enjoyment to the typical twilight garden. Fortunately, night-blooming plants often have very fragrant flowers to attract insects such as moths that flitter through the garden feeding on sweet nectar and pollinating as they do.

Finding flowers that are night-blooming, fragrant and light in color is the ultimate challenge for gardening enthusiasts. The following is a brief description of a few plants that are excellent candidates for twilight gardens.

Angel’s trumpet (Datura species): Angel’s trumpet is a member of the Nightshade family and has long, white flowers that are trumpet-shaped, heavily fluted and delightfully fragrant. Depending on species, it ranges in height from 24 to 48 inches. This plant is quite poisonous and should not be used in gardens that might be frequented by children.

Artemisia (Artemisia schmidtiana): Commonly called ‘wormwood’ this hardy perennial is grown for its lacy, silver-grey foliage that reflects evening light nicely. It displays a mound-like growth habit to a height of about 10 inches. Artemisia is drought-tolerant and should not be planted adjacent to plants that require frequent watering.‘Silver Mound’ is the leading cultivar in commerce and highly deserving of its popularity.

Dusty miller (Senecio cineraria): Dusty miller is another twilight garden plant selected because of its foliage. It has dissected leaves that are silvery white because of heavy pubescence. A seed-propagated annual, most cultivars reach a height of between 8 and 12 inches in one growing season. Different cultivars vary with regard to leaf pattern; ‘Silver Dust’ is an attractive cultivar with leaves that are finely dissected.

Evening primrose (Oenothera speciosa): This hardy perennial is fast to spread and form a mound-like mass of foliage about 12 inches in height. Its pale flowers are open at night and release a fragrant aroma into the garden. The cultivar ‘Pink Petticoats’ is especially nice and comes highly recommended.

Flowering tobacco (Nicotiana alata): Flowering tobacco is an annual bedding plant that is available in many colors and cultivar series (e.g. the Nikki Series). While any flowering tobacco with light-colored flowers is a good addition to a moon garden, the old fashioned white flowering tobacco perhaps is the best. It has white flowers that are sweetly fragrant in the evening and borne on tall (somewhat rank) plants that reach a mature height of 30 inches.

Four o’clock (Mirabilis jalapa): Four o’clock is a must for the twilight garden because of it interesting flowering habit. As its name implies, its flowers open late in the afternoon and remain open all night while emitting a pleasant fragrance. It is an annual plant with bush-like foliage that reaches a mature height of about 15 inches and reseeds itself readily. Four o’clock seems to be a favorite of night-flying moths looking for nectar.

Jasmine (Jasmine species): Jasmine is prized for its delightful fragrance. All species are tropical in nature and treated as annuals in Missouri. Royal jasmine (Jasmine rex) bears (small) white flowers in abundance that overwhelm the area with fragrance. Well-suited for container gardening, it can be moved indoors to a sunny location during the winter months to give added enjoyment.

Moonflower (Ipomoea alba): Everyone should plant a moonflower at least once in their life. Moonflower is an annual vine that may reach a height of up to 20 feet in one growing season. Its white, funnel-like flowers remain tightly closed during the day and open fully to a width of 4 inches or more in just a few minutes in the evening. Its delightfully sweet fragrance attracts night-flying pollinators and beckons humans, as well, to come closer. As its name implies, moonflower can easily be seen with just the light of the moon and is a must in every twilight garden.

Miscellaneous annuals: Any annual with white or nearlywhite flowers or light-colored foliage is a good candidate for twilight gardens. Petunias, salvia, vinca, wax begonia and nierembergia combine well with the previously-listed plants and are available in cultivars with white flowers. White cultivars of caladium are very effective in twilight gardens in shady locations. Although they lack fragrance, these species add substance and interest to the twilight garden.

Location of the twilight garden also should be considered. Ideally, it should be located in a private, relaxing spot in which evening hours can be spent. This usually implies a location adjacent or close to one’s house. Keep in mind that, even though a twilight garden is planned to be enjoyed in the subdued light of evening, its plants need adequate sunshine during the day in order to thrive. Try to find a location that receives at least 6 hours of direct sunlight. Also, areas protected from the wind tend to accentuate the fragrance of plants in a twilight garden.

Twilight gardens can be designed in a variety of shapes including round or crescent-shaped to mimic the stages of the moon. Finishing touches make pleasing additions to the twilight garden. Indirect garden lighting (especially along pathways) or garden ornaments such as light-colored statuary, gazing balls, sundials, etc. are good examples of the latter.

Gardening is all about plants and their enjoyment. Twilight gardening represents a novel way to extend this enjoyment past “normal hours” by growing plants that are showy in the evening or at night and can transform an ordinary spot into an enchanting, mesmerizing area.

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