Two Ladies of the Night
Did you know that there is not just one plant
called Lady of the Night but two? We all know
and love cestrum nocturnum for her scented
charms – it is a ‘must’ planting in our
Mediterranean gardens and wafts its intoxicating
perfume along many a sultry street on summer
nights. She has a host ofcommon names: dama de
noche, galan de noche, cestro, zorrillo, lady of the night and night-blooming jasmine being just some of them.
It is native to the West Indies though now naturalised throughout South Asia and it has to be said that it is a rather ordinary looking shrub which usually loses its leaves in winter with us. The flowers are a green-yellow colour in the form of fine tubes, opening at night. And that is when this somewhat boring bush explodes into life because its perfume is totally
spectacular, tropical, rich and exotic. Some even find it overpowering, so don´t site it under a bedroom window or you may become totally drugged by its scent.
The shrub can reach 3m or even more if left unpruned but it really needs a yearly hard pruning to prevent it from becoming straggly. This is normally carried out during the winter months. The flowers start to form towards the end of spring and it can then flower off and on throughout the summer and into early autumn. Pruning after the first flush of flowers will encourage further blooming and help to control overly vigorous growth.
Situate it in full sun or very light dappled shade; if temperatures are very hot, the sun can burn its rather tender leaves. Equally, it is not happy in very cold conditions though tolerates the sort of winter temperatures we get. Overwatering can cause yellowing of leaves. If this happens, cut down on watering and apply an iron chelate to help re-greening. It reacts well to an occasional liquid fertiliser during the growing season.
They are very prone to aphid attack – visible in curled leaves, especially at the growing tips – so keep an eye open and treat at the first sign of infection before numbers explode.
Do remember that this shrub belongs to the solanaceae family (the same as potatoes and deadly nightshade) and should therefore be treated with respect as many of this family are very poisonous. There is little documented but it is believed that the white berries, at least, are toxic.
The most common problem, however, is associated with respiratory problems, especially from asthma sufferers, resulting from the strong perfume.
The much rarer dama de noche, or gladiolus tristis, is also known as the ever-flowering gladiolus, marsh Afrikaner, junquillo de olor or varas de San Jose. This is a real connoisseurs gladioli with a wonderful elegance and very
difficult to find in spite of it being easy-going. A native of the Cape of South Africa – home to some 100 species gladioli - this winter-growing species has a wonderful scent in the evenings too. From April or May its glorious, lily-like, greenish-white flowers progressively open along the length of the thin rush-like stems. It is unique amongst gladioli because it
grows in marshy areas, poorly-drained ground or banks above streams though it is also perfectly happy in damp soil and also at high elevations. It is seen to spread rapidly in areas of winter rainfall and dry summer dormancy – luckily for us, our own climate pattern.
This dainty and delicious gladiolus grows from a corm 1cm to 2cm across, first producing three narrow sheathed leaves. The flower spike, reaching about 1m tall, bears between two and eight very beautiful, large and fragrant blooms. The flowers are greenish-white with purple striations and stippled in bronze and green and they have a heavy perfume of clove carnations. They are wonderful cut and brought into the house where they will fill rooms with their seductive aroma.
Reproduction is through little cormlets which develop at the base of the mother corm and also by seed and it can naturalise when suited – especially in Mediterranean climates. It is easy to grow in full sun, and in pots, and is hardy down to -5C. It looks delightful when allowed to grow naturally through ornamental grasses such as pennisetums, stipas etc. Applying a high phosphorus feed when in active growth will help produce more of the glorious gladioli flowers. Keep them very well-watered during their growing season but dry during dormancy in summer.
I´ve heard that, in years gone by, this lovely plant was much more commonly seen but, for some reason, it seems to have largely disappeared.
However, we have managed to attain some flowering-size corms which we have available at the garden centre and online.
Then you can let these two Ladies of the Night wander through your garden wafting their beguiling and bewitching aroma to entice the senses!