Home: Garden: Stalking the Moonflower

Gardeners really do never say die

This time of year, most of us are focusing on the upcoming holidays, with all their attendant entertaining and cooking and gift-giving. For gardeners, though, the best gift arrives in the week between Christmas and New Year’s.

This time of year, most of us are focusing on the upcoming holidays, with all their attendant entertaining and cooking and gift-giving. For gardeners, though, the best gift arrives in the week between Christmas and New Year’s. Traditionally, that’s when seed companies put out their new catalogs. And there’s nothing like those gorgeous color photos and giddy write-ups — “Withstands mildew!” “Impervious to drought!” — to conquer winter’s doldrums and get us itching to plant.

Gardeners are optimists. Gardeners believe in the future. We invest in it: We pore over those catalogs and order seeds and bulbs and set them in the ground and have faith they’ll grow. But scratch the surface of a gardening optimist, and you’ll discover that we all have personal bêtes noires — those plants that everybody else can grow but we can’t. They’re our garden grails.

Mine is the moonflower, Ipomoea alba. It’s kin to the mundane morning glory, which I spend half my summer yanking out of my garden, since it self-seeds so relentlessly. I remember the first time I ever saw moonflowers. There was a vine in front of a house my parents rented at the Shore three decades ago. I loved the dusky gray-green leaves and the huge white trumpets that one could actually watch wind open on still summer nights.

That winter, I ordered moonflower seeds. Now, I’m no slouch when it comes to starting seeds. And this was back before I had kids, when every windowsill in my house was adorned with peat pots from January through Memorial Day. (It only takes, oh, five or six occasions on which Junior strews the carpets and deep recesses of the radiators with seedlings and soil to switch you to sowing in situ until your offspring leave for college.) I’ve started impatiens and begonias from seed. Not impressed? Okay, hotshot, I’ve started crape myrtle from seed. But my moonflowers didn’t grow. They didn’t sprout and then fall victim to damping-off. They simply never got started at all. Nada. Zero. Zilch.

There are two ways of looking at such a crop failure. You can say, “Well. I guess I wasn’t meant to grow moonflowers,” and switch to marigolds. Or you can take it as a personal rebuke, turn it into a horticultural Hatfield-and-McCoy: So, moonflower, looks like it’s me against you. This is the road I chose. Every seed order I put in for the next quarter-century wasn’t complete until I’d added Ipomoea alba. I wasn’t about to let a $1.25-a-packet vine — especially not one that, I’d read, frequently becomes invasive — get the best of me.

I followed the directions. I nicked the seeds. I soaked the seeds. I recited druid incantations over the seeds. My moonflowers never came up, no matter what I tried.

I’m lucky enough to have a BGF — Best Gardening Friend. My BGF is Ruth. We both love to garden, and we’re both cheap. So we team up on our seed (winter) and bulb (fall) orders, to save on shipping and handling. Ruth watched me order moonflower seeds for the first several years of our acquaintance and couldn’t help noticing that there were never any moonflowers in my garden. “Why do you keep buying them?” she asked finally, sensibly.

“Someday I’ll get those damned seeds to grow,” I said.

When my moonflower seeds arrived that spring, Ruth made me an offer: “I’ll try to start them.” And lo and behold, in her peat pots, on her windowsills, moonflowers sprouted like mad. She gave me half the seedlings, and planted half herself. Hers ran wild, turning the plot beside her garden shed into a riot of white blossoms and sweet perfume. Mine … died. Almost instantly.

Amazingly, our friendship survived. But I gave up ordering moonflower seeds after that. Even $1.25 seemed too much to pay for a plant that clearly was thumbing its nose at me. Ruth, however, always orders moonflowers. Every year, she gives me seedlings. Every year, I plant them. And every year, they die.

My roses are lush and lovely. My tomatoes are toothsome. I grow glorious larkspur and lilies. This past summer, my basil plants stretched six feet high. I have nothing to prove when it comes to my garden, nothing to be ashamed of. Except this: I can’t grow moonflowers. Still, come Memorial Day, I’ll take the seedlings Ruth gives me and plant them in a prime spot, water and weed them, and wait.

Because gardeners really are optimists. We have to be. Our failures are reminders that we only have so many summers allotted to us. Sometimes drought hits. Sometimes it rains too much. Inevitably, we lose what we love. A garden is tangible proof of our defiance: Spring will follow winter. The older we grow, and the colder the world seems, the more we go on planting moonflowers, in the hope of someday standing at dusk and watching them unfurl.