By: Jessie Keith
If you spend evenings relaxing on your porch or patio, then consider planting a moon garden nearby. These fragrant late-day gardens glow in the evening light, attracting luminous moths, such as luna moths and sphinx moths, which is why they are also considered “moth gardens”.
Moth-pollinated plants have several shared floral characteristics. Their blooms stay open and become fragrant late in the day and into the night. They are pale colored, often white, to catch the last evening light and light of the moon. Finally, they are often trumpet shaped and hold lots of nectar for the many long-tongued moths that pollinate them.
Moth or moon garden plants may be annual, perennial, or woody, and many you may already know or grow. Favorites are are easy to find at garden centers, but few may require a purchase from a specialty seed vendor and grown at home. Those that can be grown from seed should be started indoors in late winter in Black Gold Seedling mix and planted outdoors after the threat of frost has passed. (Click here to learn how to grow flowers from seed.)
Moon Garden Annuals
These annuals can be added to any existing garden space for nighttime charm. Some require a good bit of space while others are smaller and tidier.
Moonflower (Ipomoea alba)
Though related to morning glories, moonflower opens in the evening, producing huge 5-6” flowers. One of the great joys of these enormous white flowers is that they open so quickly you can see it in real time. (See a real-time video of an opening moon flower here!). The blooms open in the mid evening and remain open until morning, presenting a strong, sweet fragrance. The large, vigorous, twining vines grow and flower best in full sun and require a strong fence or trellis for support. Flowering occurs from midsummer to frost.
Four-O-Clocks (Mirabilis jalapa)
Best known for their colorful tubular flowers of orange, white, magenta, or yellow (sometimes in tricolor combinations), four-o-clocks open in late afternoon and stay open until morning. The highly fragrant blooms are produced on bushy plants (to 3’) and attract long-tonged moths. Four-o-clocks are Peruvian natives that first became popular in Victorian times, and are still planted today. The chartreuse-leaved, magenta-flowered ‘Limelight’ is an especially pretty selection (seed source here!). All plant parts are poisonous, so plant them away from children and pets.
Woodland Tobacco (Nicotiana sylvestris)
Plant these tall (to 3-5’), old-fashioned garden flowers along the back of a partially shaded flower bed or in full sun. Showy clusters of tubular white flowers crown the plants, emitting nighttime fragrance and glowing in the evening light. Remove old, spent flower clusters to keep plants blooming vigorously to frost. All plant parts are toxic.
Angel’s Trumpet (Datura innoxia)
Huge, white, trumpet-shaped flowers are the glory of this large (to 2-5’), bushy, tender perennial. Its powerfully fragrant flowers glow at night, feeding hovering long-tongued moths that get drunk on their nectar. Provide angel’s trumpet with lots of space, and be sure to plant it away from pets or children as all parts are poisonous.
Night Phlox (Zaluzianskya capensis)
Native to South Africa, night phlox produces lacy white flowers (with burgundy outer petals) in summer. The bushy, compact (to 6-12”) plants look best in containers or along border edges. Their delicious, honeyed fragrance will spice the evening air and draw all manner of moths. Try the high-performing cultivar ‘Midnight Candy’ (plant source here).
Evening Stocks (Matthiola longipetala)
Delicate, slightly showy flowers of lavender, pink, and white bedeck this old-fashioned annual when growing conditions are cool and mild, in spring or fall. Gardeners grow evening stocks for their indulgent, sweet fragrance rather than appearance. They reach about 12” in height and are best planted among showier flowers, such as spring bulbs or fall four-o-clocks. Start them from seed indoors in late winter for spring or midsummer for fall (seed source here).
Moon Garden Perennials
Missouri Evening Primrose (Oenothera macrocarpa)
There are many species of evening primrose with showy flowers, but many are pretty aggressive spreaders that need a lot of space, such as the beautiful, pink evening primrose (Oenothera speciosa). Missouri evening primrose is an exception. Its glowing yellow flowers appear on tidy, compact plants (to 8-10”) and open in the evening, emitting a light fragrance that attracts hawk moths. Native to rocky, limestone landscapes across the Central United States, it is remarkably hardy, surviving in USDA Hardiness Zones 3-7.
Adam’s Needle (Yucca filamentosa)
This bold, evergreen perennial has clusters of sword-like leaves and produces 6-8’ upright panicles of waxy ivory flowers in summer. The fragrant, pendant, bell-shaped blooms glow in the evening, and are pollinated exclusively by a yucca moth (Tegeticula yuccasella). Plant on sunny high ground, and give the clump plenty of space to grow. ‘Golden Sword’ is a particularly lovely selection with variegated foliage of gold edged in green.
Tuberose (Polianthes tuberosa)
This summer-blooming bulb produces 2-3’ upright stalks of tubular white flowers with spectacular nighttime fragrance. The waxy blooms are delicate and lovely. Tuberose is somewhat tender, surviving up to USDA Hardiness Zone 7. After flowering, it will die back, so plant it among other ornamentals with fuller foliage that will continue to look attractive into fall.
Moon Garden Shrubs
Night Flowering Jasmine (Cestrum nocturnum)
A tender shrub (to 4’) native to the West Indies, night flowering jasmine produces clusters of long, trumpet-shaped flowers of palest green, ivory, or near yellow. In colder climates, it can be planted as a potted tender perennial in summer containers or grown as a conservatory plant. The blooms produce a heady fragrance in the evening.
Gardenias (Gardenia spp.)
Gardenias are popular evergreen shrubs with a familiar strong, sweet fragrance. What most don’t know is that they are moth pollinated, which is why their fragrance grows stronger in the evening. Gardenias are considered one of the best southern evergreen shrubs, and the single-flowered ‘Kleim’s Hardy‘ is an exceptional cultivar for the landscape that will reliably survive winters up to USDA Hardiness Zone 7.
Common Honeysuckle (Lonicera periclymenum)
The common honeysuckle is a known moth-pollinated woody vine that is both long blooming and high performing. The impressive Proven Winners introduction ‘Scentsation’ has especially fragrant blooms produced on twining, scrambling vines that can reach 20′ or more. The flowers remain open during the day, but like all true moth-pollinated plants, they are most fragrant at night. Common honeysuckle is hardy to USDA Hardiness Zones 4-9.
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