Sunset in the summer is a lovely time of day. The blazing sun finally sinks below the horizon and the air begins to cool down. Humans think about sitting out on the patio in the refreshing evening air, and many other desert animals come out for the serious business of trying to eat without being eaten.
Most plants do not welcome the dark. Dark means no sun to drive the photosynthetic pathways that create the sugars they use as building blocks of life. As the sun sinks slowly in the west, most plants shut down systems for the night ahead, often folding flower petals shut.
Lucky for us desert dwellers, there are a number of desert plants that do not shut down at night, instead they drench the night air with alluring fragrance, trying to attract some of the nighttime animals to come and pollinate them.
It makes sense. Without hot desert sunshine to wilt flowers or dry up nectar, plants have a better chance of finding a pollinator and spreading their genes around. The drawback is that night bloomers have to share the relatively fewer night-flying pollinators. They share pollinators by timing when they flower. This makes a win-win situation for the desert gardener. By planting a variety of plants, you can have a delightful palate of ever-changing fragrances in your evening garden for months.
Plants that are native and bloom at night include, first and foremost, our official state wildflower, the saguaro cactus. Since planting a saguaro and waiting for it to bloom requires a lengthy time frame, let's look at some you can plant now and enjoy, if not this year, then next for sure.
Primroses are nice, night bloomers include the tufted evening primrose (Oenothera caespitosa), Arizona evening primrose, (O. hookerii), and the spring primrose (O. primiveris).
Aloysias are shrubs that bloom sweetly at night, and linger into the day. Vanilla-scented white bush (Aloysia lycioides) and the mis-named Wrights bee bush (A. wrightii) are both native to our area.
I enjoy jimson weeds as night bloomers (Datura wrightii, D. discolor, and D. quercifolia). They fill the night with a musky fragrance and draw the giant hummingbird moths into the yard to pollinate them. The plants have large, dusky green leaves, and they appear to survive on rainfall alone, a real plus in my book. They are poisonous, but that can be a plus too because their presence in the yard helps keep hungry herbivores from examining the area too closely and finding the more tasty plants.
Cacti of many shapes and sizes bloom at night. Some of these are not native here, and will require some winter protection. I have most of them planted under mesquite trees, which is just enough frost protection. Easter lily cactus (Echinopsis ssp.), harrisia (Harrisia martinii), trailing cactus (Hylocereus undatus), serpent cactus (Peniocereus serpentinus), and the giant flowered selenicerus (Selenicerus grandiflorus).
Perhaps best of all is the tall and stately Peruvian apple cactus (Cereus peruvianus). As the name suggests, the fruits of this last one are large and delightfully edible. No spines on the fruit, simply slice them open and scoop the watermelon sweet flesh out with a spoon (or your fingers). The juicy flesh is cool and refreshing, and the seeds like poppyseeds are tiny and offer a lovely crunch.
I really should discuss the Arizona queen of the night (Peniocereus greggii) but I am out of space. Look for the awesome blooms sometime in June.
Jacqueline has been writing about gardening in the Southwest for close to three decades. She is currently working on a book on growing and using the herbs of Father Kino’s Mission Gardens.