Moon Flower

For those of you baby boomers, yes, “Moonflower” is an album by Santana, but it’s also a plant in the morning glory family with a lovely white bloom.

The Moonflower is named for its round white shape, like the moon, and because it blooms in the evening. The flowers begin to open in late afternoon and last only until the morning sun reaches them. They can occasionally be found in remote settings in the deep shade of a canyon, still blooming at midday, but only because the sun has not yet reached them. In sunlight, the petals go limp and shrivel.

The scientific name is ipomoea alba: “ipomoea” referring to bindweed, i.e. the twining vine growth pattern, and “alba” meaning white.

The many members of this plant genus include morning glories, sweet potato, and water spinach. Some of the plants, like the morning glories, bloom in daytime to attract bees and other insects that are active during the day. The moonflower blooms at night to attract night-flying moths, and its white color is part of the attraction.

The moonflower, also known as moon vine, is a tropical perennial, but it is often grown as an annual for ornamental use in colder climates. It is slow-growing through most of the year, but growth speeds up rapidly in hot weather.

According to researchers at MIT, Meso-american peoples in central America, in the period from about 2000 BC until 1500 BC, used the moonflower to modify the properties of rubber from the native castilla elastica tree. The sulfur content of the moonflower enhanced the elasticity of the otherwise brittle rubber. They produced large rubber balls used in ritual games as part of their religious observances.

Although individual blossoms last only an evening, the plant produces many blooms through the summer. One stem can hold many buds, but they will not all bloom at the same time. The bloom is five to six inches across and pure white. The unopened buds are quite interesting, with five sections that gradually unfurl into the large blossom. The flowers also have a soft, sweet fragrance. The plant has dark green heart-shaped leaves about six to eight inches long, which look quite similar to morning glory leaves.

Moonflowers are usually grown from seed. After the flower dies and the remaining husk dries out, seeds can be harvested. The large white seeds are poisonous if ingested. The seeds are usually nicked and soaked in water to promote germination, and they will only germinate in warm soil.

If you decide to add moonflowers to your garden, you’ll be able to walk out on a summer evening, inhale the sweet scent, and gaze at the open flowers reflecting the light of the moon.