A Mystery of Moonflowers

Moonflower Vine


Standing at the open door, listening to the Cardinals bedding down for the night, I inhaled the fragrances of day surrendering to those of the night – Abelia and old rose yielding to Nicotiana and moonflower. But blanketing, smothering all these sweet, green scents of the garden, was the pervading odor of dust.


For more than a month we’ve had no rain, except for a spit from a passing cloud that seemed to begrudge every drop. In times like these, when the heat and the dry seem not only unnatural, but numinous, I catch myself looking backward to the old talismans, old beliefs, as if I need to find a sacrifice to appease an angry god, say a diseased political system or two. I feel the despair hovering for all the things I can do nothing about and grope for a practical thought or a treasured memory with which to fill my head instead, shoring up my vulnerable spirit. I shrug and turn and see the mystery of the moonflowers weaving their way down the path to the garden gate.


I planted the moonflower (Ipomoea alba) seeds late this year because of all the rain. Rich with years of composting, the soil along the iron fence now sucked at my boots, and I worried that the seeds might rot in the pudding like earth. A few days later, I set out the seedlings of Cobaea scandens, the cup-and-saucer vine, hoping they would enjoy each other’s company. The moonflowers sprouted, then sulked like recalcitrant toddlers.  At last as if having made their point, they decided to grow by twining leaps and climbing bounds all throughout a soggy June and July. And then came the second week in August, and the rains ceased and the temperatures rose. It seemed hell had come to roost in the Appalachians of the South.


As if in defiance, the moonflowers began to bloom – nodding from the finials, drooping from the branches of a Magnolia, swooning across the pathway. In the mornings before the sun gathered its strength, gnats gathered inside the flowers, looking like pepper garnish on salad plates of the finest porcelain. In the evenings as the air cooled and the blooms began to glow in the coming darkness, moths sought out their nectar, and I sought out their fragrance.


They should have never continued to bloom so beautifully, or look so lush, mornings and evenings. The only moisture they received in this time of drought was a quick spray from the water hose on my way to all the newly planted trees and shrubs. A coward, I averted my eyes from the annuals and the faithful, traitorously choosing who might receive that

Cobaea scandens, the cup-and-saucer vine
Cobaea scandens, the cup-and-saucer vine

thirst quenching drop. And still the moonflowers bloomed. As did the Cobaea with their royal purple cups and mellow lime saucers, happy neighbors invading the Ipomoea’s territory.


Barely two feet away, the spade chipped through the soil to a Saharan depth of ten inches. A few feet beyond that a Vitex thrust out its second flush of blooms. In Kim’s Garden the Camellia sasanquas blossomed, the C. japonicas budded.  The flowers of Anemone ‘Queen Charlotte’ curtseyed like courtesans in the hot breezes. Some of the Magnolias suffered early leaf fall; others retained their green leaves now turning gold. All the trees and shrubs and perennials, having made this their home throughout the years, look as if they’re baring up, their roots pushing hard, traveling deep, searching for moisture. After two years of record rains, how could it be too far away? But how to explain the moonflower, the cup-and-saucer, both natives of the tropical Americas, both with their limited life spans in our temperate though chaotic climate? When the first frost – if it comes – shatters their glory, I’ll perform an autopsy, see how far their roots dug, check their vascular systems.


I seem to be always experimenting on the deceased and many times the living. I’ve just finished hauling all the potted Colocasias and Agapanthus, the tender trees and seedlings up a flight of stone steps to the greenhouse. I notice I’ve missed one container – Colocasia ‘Illustris’. With its offspring now safe under glass, it becomes another experiment. I shove it into a sheltered corner next to the furnace. If the promised rains come and “normal” returns for a nostalgic visit, we should get our first frost and cold temperatures tomorrow.




The rains fell, first as a whisper in the early hours before dawn, then increasing to a steady rhythm. Later out in the sunshine, I scattered poppy seeds. The seed pods along the moonflower vine look swollen and fat and shiny and beautiful.

Seed pod of the Moonflower Vine
Seed pod of Ipomoea alba, the Moonflower Vine