Night blooms and their pollinators

Manduca sexta feeding from Datura flower © Kiley Riffey. Flickr

Manduca sexta feeding from Datura flower
© Kiley Riffey. Flickr

Nature abhors a vacuum, we are told. Life finds its way into every nook and cranny. It isn’t only spatial nooks and crannies but also temporal ones. Many vital activities go on after the sun sets and before it rises the next day. We are familiar with the plants that bloom during the day. What about the ones that bloom at night? And, just as interesting: what about the ones that take advantage of those in-between times, dawn and dusk?

We have discussed night blooms a couple of times in this blog. There is so much more that it is worth covering the subject once again. Let us include the times between day and night, crepuscular hours. Don’t you love the word? These are the hours just before sunrise, dawn, and after sunset, dusk. Some flowers and their pollinators specialize in one or the other of these periods.

Most pollinators wait for the sun to shine. They need, not just the bright light, but also the warmth to get their flying muscles going. The flowers that attract them wear the colors most visible in these circumstances, in bright contrast with the foliage that surrounds them. After the sun goes down a whole new set of rules enters into play. Bright colors are useless, but white or pale cream are the colors of choice for night blooms. The sense of smell becomes more important than ever. This is why the nocturnal garden is so rich in delightful scents. Don’t you love it that it appeals to your nose as well as to your eyes?

The primary nocturnal and crepuscular pollinators are creatures of the night like moths and bats. But, did you know that a few bees have become nocturnal as well? Mostly, they are species that live in hot and dry places.

Among the moths, the best known pollinators are hawkmoths, large moths that can hover in front of flowers, unfurl their long tongues and drink from large, tubular flowers like Datura, Nicotiana, four-o-clock, and morning glories. They usually come back every evening to the same flower patch in search of food. So if you see them once. You may want to sit in your garden chair again and again, same time, same place, and be treated with their repeated appearance. Many smaller moths also visit night blooms, but we don’t know much about them.

Many nocturnal flowers remain open during the day, but they don’t produce so much nectar at that time. Although they get visitors day and night, studies show that night pollinators are more effective. Probably, the nocturnal flower and its pollinator are fine tuned.

Campions are pollinated primarily by nocturnal moths, although they also get visitors, like this syrphid fly, during the day © Beatriz Moisset.

Campions are pollinated primarily by nocturnal moths, although they also get visitors, like this syrphid fly, during the day
© Beatriz Moisset.

Bats are also important nocturnal pollinators. Many cacti take advantage of them. These plants satisfy the demands of such large pollinators with large flowers and copious nectar.

Adding night blooming plants to the native plant garden enriches the biodiversity of plants and pollinators and it also enriches our lives by stimulating our senses.

These rove beetles may not pollinate morning glories, but are interesting nonetheless © Beatriz Moisset.

These rove beetles may not pollinate morning glories, but are interesting nonetheless
© Beatriz Moisset.

© 2014 – 2015, Beatriz Moisset. All rights reserved. This article is the property of Native Plants and Wildlife Gardens. We have received many requests to reprint our work. Our policy is that you are free to use a short excerpt which must give proper credit to the author, and must include a link back to the original post on our site. Please use the contact form above if you have any questions.

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  1. Aarti Srivastav says

    I was fascinated by this article -I had never really thought like this. Never took what they taught me in my Biology lessons at school seriously till now. And what a lovely way to recall “boring”lessons of the past. Thank you. The pictures are truly amazing and I especially connected with the flower “Datura”- it is one that grows quite abundantly in the parts where I have lived most of nmy life (Delhi, the capital of India)and is actually the flower of the plant which is believed to be the favourite of Lord Shiva. Its thorny fruits are offered to Him! And the sap is considered to be poisonous…
    As for the bats, I never dreamt they sought nectar!
    Please can you include on how the jasmine gets pollinated? i adore the scent in the dark summer nights and am curious to find out who is serenading the flowers!

    • Beatriz Moisset says

      Thanks. It is interesting that the genus Datura has several species distributed in different parts of the world. The one native to India is the one you refer to. However, I recently learned that one of the American species, the so called Jimson weed has spread to many countries. In some places it has become a noxious weed. I wonder whether you are seeing more of this species than your native one, nowadays.

      Jasmine is a lovely flower. I adore its scent. We used them as Christmas gifts in Argentina, my home country. When I came to this northern continent, my husband went out of his way to find jasmines to give me for Christmas, not an easy task in this hemisphere.

      As you realize, this blog is about native plants of North America. Jasmine isn’t native here. I hope you find some information elsewhere. I am curious too.
      Beatriz Moisset recently posted..Sticky Pollen

  2. Michelle Banks-RamblingWoods says

    Wonderful article. I had never thought of flowers having to refill their nectar until reading a book this summer on bees. Of course it makes sense. This is great info on the night crew.. thank you.. Michelle

  3. Emily Scott says

    I always feel drawn to white flowers at night, they really shine out, so their effect on pollinators must be hypnotic.



  1. Night blooms and their pollinators | Polinizador's Blog says:

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