Last year at this time, I wrote of planting a night-blooming garden because after all, how many of us sit out at high noon in the summer to enjoy our plants? Many of us are more likely to be out at midnight to enjoy the cool air. Well, if not midnight, how about sunset and early evening? The blazing sun finally sinks below the horizon and the air begins to cool down. Whew. Not just us humans enjoy the evening, but also many other desert animals, including a number of night-flying pollinators.
Last year I covered a number of cacti that bloom at night. (Which reminds me, be sure to see the “Queen of the Night” cactus* bloom at Tohono Chul Park!). This year, let’s look at the Four O’Clock Family.
Many flowers of the Nyctaginaceae, or Four O’Clock Family, open in the evening and close come morning, a habit that has lead to their common name. Bougainvillea is in this family, with showy bracts that surround three small, white flowers. If the white flowers are present, come out at four o’clock or so and take a sniff. The scent is musky sweet, attracting night-flying moths with long tongues to sip the nectar, like the giant hummingbird moth.
The confusingly called sand-verbenas (Abronia ssp.) are in the Four O’Clock family, not the Verbena family (though the blooms do look superficially like verbena). Abronia blooms, like those of verbena, are borne in long-lasting clusters. The scent is only released at night, but they are visually pleasing in daylight as well. Abronias form nice groundcovers, and so tend not to be as rampant as verbenas. The entire genus prefers loose and sandy soils, and likes to dry out between watering. Readers with clay soils should avoid acquiring Abronia.
Abronia fragrans (sweet sand-verbena, prairie snowball, fragrant verbena) is charming for sweet fragrance. The flowers are borne in large globular clusters that do look like a snowball. A single plant of this perennial groundcover can spread from its taproot to cover six feet of ground. More of a prairie plant than a desert one, it will need some extra water to survive here.
Amelia’s sand-verbena (Abronia ameliae) is a native of southern Texas and is quite charming when planted around the base of Texas ranger shrubs. The pinkish-magenta blooms go well with Texas ranger blooms and silvery foliage.
Pink sand-verbena, also called purple sand-verbena (Abronia umbellata), has fleshy succulent leaves and may flower all year long. Found in Baja, it can take our heat but will not take cold much below 22 degrees.
Yellow sand-verbena (Abronia latifolia) is native to the west coast of North America, from Baja to the Canadian border. It does well here with afternoon shade in the summer and has attractive, neatly rounded heads of small, bright golden flowers through much of spring and again in fall.
Mountain sand-verbena (Abronia turbinata), with white blooms and a very sweet fragrance, is native to the cooler high deserts of Nevada and California and good for the shady (and cooler) north side of the house. It sure can take the freezing but gets unhappy with extreme heat.
Desert sand-verbena (Abronia villosa) is our Sonoran-native, spring annual with bright magenta to purplish-pink flowers. It has a very sweet fragrance, and blooms between February and May. Plant its seeds in October.
Some readers may be thinking, but what about the four o’clock Mirabilis jalapa? A native of Peru with large leaves, this can be grown in a monsoon garden, but will need a lot of water to survive our heat. This species is more ideally grown in warm, not hot, coastal climates.
Plant some fragrance in your yard so you have a good excuse to sit and smell the night bloomers!
Dr. Jacqueline Soule’s latest book, “Father Kino’s Herbs: Growing and Using Them Today,” is available at area nurseries or by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
*Editor’s Note: According to Tohono Chul Park representatives, it is too early to predict any bloom date for the “Queen of the Night” cactus, pictured above. Historically, bloom night falls somewhere between late May and mid-July, with the most common bloom time being mid- to late June. Watch the park’s website – www.tohonochulpark.org – or call the bloom hotline at 742-6455, ext. 915, for updates. Park officials are unable to provide much lead time, so an announcement may occur the day of the bloom.