NOW THERE ARE MOMENTS WHEN WEATHER SEEMS TO HAVE TURNED and we hang in the hinge between summer and fall. The bee balm and Echinacea have browned and crisped, every last petal floated to the soft wet soil and dissolved. Heavy rains have started to slough off the last of the summer blooms, but before autumn foliage fully erupts around us, there is still at least one late summer sensation to enjoy: the last days of August, in my mind, have always solely belonged to the moonflower.
Or sometimes, the lack thereof. The three most popular and well-known plant varieties called by the enchanting name of moonflower are brugmansia, datura, and a strain of ipomoea. This last moonflower, a witchy nightbloomer, is related to its slutty sister of the same name, the morning glory. An old love once taught me how to bejewel a city balcony with summer blooms no matter what time of day: rig up lattices around the terrace, and below them plant boxes of morning glories and ipomoea moonflowers. Within just a few weeks the lattice will be covered with fat, heart-shaped leaves that hang like loose scales. Your view will be obscured, but that is a small price to pay for the personal privacy and near-invisibility awarded by a verdant wall that encloses a precious scrap of outdoor space in a densely packed urban area.
Morning glories are prolific, they spread and bloom easily; my favorites are the deep throaty purple varieties, but the pale blue ones have their own unique and quiet charm as well. Morning glories open in the morning and close up in the afternoon, but moonflowers will open at dusk or after dark in a spectacular display of unfolding petals, from bud to cleft to full bloom in about one minute. Even closed up these buds have a magnificent shape, like the carefully crafted spiral spire of a fantasy castle. As they unwind, each degree of crisp paper-white petal becomes increasingly visible; the dramatic event is so fast that you can actually watch the bloom open.
The end result, when the flower is open, is near-blinding. The blooms can be as big as my hand, with five whiter-than-white stripes that blaze down the center of their ivory petals, creating the effect of a five-pointed star. Multiple stamina thrust from the center have tiny caps shaped like the heads of pussy-willows that appear to be dipped in fine crystals like a piece of sugared fruit. Not surprisingly, the blooms, once fully open, crane on their stems to face the moon, which, if you turn off your porch light, will illuminate the petals so sensationally that they seem to almost glow in the dark. If they are specked with moisture from an early rain or recent watering, they will also sparkle, adding glitter and bling to their evening show. But each bud, once open, lasts only one night: it curls up and dies when it is first touched by morning light.
I mentioned the “lack thereof,” and by that I mean that the conditions must be specific for the ipomoea moonflower vine to actually bud. I’ve planted several, and only a few flourished enough to put out a series of several healthy blooms. The ipomoea moonflower vine needs full sun and warm soil to thrive, and the right kind of warm days accented by cool evenings, like the ones we may be about to experience, are important components of a benevolent environment for the blooms. In my experience, the years in which we plunge from the heat of summer right into a frosty autumn seem to truncate the blooming cycle of the moonflower vine.
Datura and brugmansia, conversely, are almost sinfully easy to cultivate and bring to bloom regardless of the climate. Majestic and grand, both of these do just fine in the Southern tier, and I’ve seen some spectacular ones around my neighborhood. Datura also grows like a vine, but low to the ground. It puts out big fat spiky seedpods and spreads rapidly in a single season, so it should have a lot of space around it when planted; otherwise it will trounce other, more fragile plants that get in its way. These blooms, when they come, protrude straight upward toward the sky. Their near-relation brugmansia, on the other hand, grows on a large, sturdy, leafy plant that can get upwards of five feet tall and shoots out blooms known as angel trumpets that open in the opposite direction: straight down, mouth wide open, face to the ground.
A woman I chatted with once described the ipomoea moonflower scent as White Diamonds, Elizabeth Taylor’s classic perfume. Wonderfully sweet but not sticky or overpowering, clean and fresh, bearing traces of gardenia or maybe freesia; it’s obvious why the moonflower is associated with intoxication and disorientation. Pagan practitioners advise heavy inhaling around the open bloom to induce trance before practicing divination or going to sleep (if your goal is to spark prophetic dreams). The brugmansia, too, is known to be endowed with strong hallucinogenic and toxic properties if ingested, and I’ve heard it said you can get revenge on an enemy by putting a blooming brugmansia below his bedroom window: inhaling the perfume of the open bloom is said to instigate horrific dreams and night terrors.
I know that the reason the ipomoea moonflower opens at night is to attract the moths that pollinate it, but I still like to think of them as the garden’s vampires, luscious and lusty at night, shriveled and dispatched by the light of the morning sun. And of course, moths are known to attract bats, so this analogy is not too far off the mark. I didn’t plant any moonflower vines this year, but I did dream of one recently. A dream symbol book said that a moonflower vine exemplifies the bountiful spreading of a singular spiritual deed. Mine, or someone else’s? I suppose that’s not important, and the symbol is so obvious as to be almost meaningless. But before fall fully envelops us, a few final garden metaphors still provide grist for comfort and reflection, while every day the light leaks out of the sky just a little bit earlier.
Danielle Winterton is a fiction writer, frequent contributor to The Ithaca Post, and co-founding editor of Essays & Fictions.