The time has come to think of moonflowers, or rather to do something about them, such as planting seeds now. This will be the signal, no doubt, for cold gray days and drenching rains lasting a whole month (we are 10 good rains behind, this year, and things eventually even out) so seeds rot in the ground.
Even so, the moonflower is such an agreeable flower from July till frost that it is worth the slight effort.
I can say this, having ignored it (Calonyction is its scientific name, by the way) for decades, until Capt. Roger Pineau gave me some seeds a few years ago, and I saw anew how wonderful a thing it is on a hot stuffy night.
The books say the flowers open like magic from their buds in a minute or two, but mine never did. I would say it took them an hour, but maybe I didn't watch them carefully enough.
In any case, it is a tropical vine that we grow as an annual. Nothing much is gained by planting the seeds before mid-May, when you sow them where you want them to grow. Like many of the morning glory tribe it does not like being transplanted, though you could start seeds in a plastic cup, I imagine, and move the young plants into place without grave disturbance.
Mine usually grow about 20 feet, but I have admired some on Chesapeake Street that grow on a fence or wall only about six feet high. When the young plants want to climb, you have to give them something. I have used string, to get them up to a steel guy-wire and they carry on from there.
They like water. They make all this tremendous growth in the matter of a few weeks, and it takes sun and water in abundance if they are to do their best. I used to give mine a bucket of water every day, but of course they would grow on a fence in ordinary garden soil.
The flowers are pure white and highly perfumed, though it is a scent I am not smitten of, rather heavy and sticky-sweet. They look like morning glories but are larger, and they bloom at night, fading the next morning. Probably if you grew them facing west, so the morning sun did not hit them, they would last longer in the morning. They open only once, and you count on new flowers to replace them. Thus, some nights there are a lot of blooms, but only a few on other nights. The better the plant is grown, the greater show it makes.
It is not a delicate climber like certain clematis. Its lust for life is somewhat embarrassing to Puritans like me, and it is no plant to grow at the base of a climbing rose, to wander through it opening its white saucers here and there. It will smother any plant it climbs up, so keep it away from your dwarf peach and plum and things like that.
On the other hand it looks fine on a chain-link fence, fully smothering it. I remember a tennis court in Mississippi in which moon vines covered the baffle screens, and no matter how many times tennis balls whacked into the moon vine, it seemed to make no difference. The same backstop fences had cypress vines to bring a little color during daylight hours.
I hesitate to mention another plant of summer that I love even more, the night jasmine, Cestrum nocturnum. There must be small greenhouses around Washington that sell young plants you could set out now or in the next few weeks, but I have not found any.
This night jasmine, not to be confused with any of the true jasmines, or with the Carolina jasmine, either, is a semishrub, sending up soft arching stems that may reach six feet in a summer. It is a veritable weed, and its flowers are nothing to look at, borne in panicles the size of crape myrtle flowers, but greenish-white in color. They are tiny stars, maybe an eighth of an inch in diameter.
The larger the plant, the larger the panicle of blooms, but even in full bloom they make no show at all. About 8 or 9 in the evening, especially around Labor Day, the little buds open and exhale a perfume of ravishing sweetness.
When I was a boy we did not have night jasmines, because my mother thought their fragrance oppressive. She was not alone in this feeling. Refined tastes, I suspect, do not care for this plant.
For utterly ruining a dinner party, nothing is better. Sometimes the little greenish flowers would be mixed with late-summer zinnias and stuff in the South, and if dinner was early enough no harm was done. But dinners down there often lasted a long time, and about 8:30 these waves of perfume would break over the table. When this happens you cannot tell mackerel from raspberry ice.
The scent seems to deaden every other receptor in the nose, and all you can smell or taste is a mixture of clove and tuberose. After a few minutes you no longer smell it (the nose gives up and dies) then maybe half an hour later you get another heavy wave.
If you plant it by the back door and leave the windows open it will get into the house (the scent) and refined ladies will cry mercy, what is that?
I have actually brought blooms into the house to my bedroom because I like smells like lilies, magnolias, gardenias, tuberoses, but freely confess this is not a delicate perfume like lilies of the valley.
In France I was so grateful not to smell it; it would have overwhelmed me with homesickness. In the house, by the way, you will be waked at 3 a.m. or other bizarre hours by the power of the scent, and after a time it will smell like a dead rat, as jasmine, hyacinths, gardenias and tuberoses will. So it is not a good fragrance to sleep with. Take it out, once you go to bed.
It grows like a weed from cuttings four inches long, rooted in dirt or water. I can imagine the smell would drive weak persons mad with passion, but know nothing of this directly.