Plants are so amazing….
Last night, my husband and I took an evening stroll and as we stepped out the front door, I was struck by a sweet fragrance. I couldn’t quite pinpoint its source, and since my husband was already half way up the street, I scrambled after him rather than taking the time to find it.
Upon our return, however, I stopped him before he made it to the front door. “Honey,” I said, “do you smell that? Lets figure out where it is coming from.” I happen to have a better smeller than he does, but I like to involve him in my plant escapades from time to time.
I know from experience that the biggest smells often comes from the most demure or subtle blooms. In fact, it is a common strategy for plants whose flowers aren’t very showy to make a big smell. We humans may think that the fragrance is for our enjoyment, but in truth, that’s how the plants attract pollinators. And the fragrance isn’t always sweet.
In the case of Stapelia, for example, the genus is known for its off-color, star-shaped flowers that nestle deep among succulent branches. It would be pretty challenging for an insect or bird to find their blooms by sight. But the flowers emit a terrible odor, like rotten meat. And guess what their pollinator is… flies! What better way to attract a fly than to smell like rotten meat?
Pale colored flowers are often fragrant too. Angel trumpet (Brugmansia) for example, has lovely, huge, dangling trumpet-shaped flowers, typically in ghostly white, pale, yellow or pale pink/coral.
These big-blooming South American natives are pollinated by moths at night. So, how do the moths find their targets in the dark?
If you grow angel trumpet, you’ve probably noticed that they emit a wonderful floral fragrance starting in the late afternoon and lasting through much, if not all of night time hours (I’m never awake long enough to figure out when the fragrance abates). The moths simply follow the scent.
By the way, hybrid angel trumpets are selected for more intense-colored flowers. And the cold-tolerant, Andean red angel’s trumpet, Brugmansia sanguinea blooms deep orange-red with a yellow throat.
One of my favorite species gladiolas, Gladiolus tristis (South African marsh Afrikaner) uses the same strategy as the angel trumpet. These January/February bloomers have tall, narrow leaves and the palest of yellow flowers. Starting late afternoon, their perfume fills the air, just in time to attract their own moth pollinator.
But this time of year, the angel trumpet has yet to flower and the gladiola is long past. So what was so fragrant?
Amazingly enough, it was a Sansevieria, a plant whose unfortunate common name is mother-in-law’s tongue.
Sansevieria are evergreen plants of tropical and subtropical Africa and Asia. They were tremendously popular in the era of mid-century modern and modernistic architecture (roughly 1940s – 70s) because of their own architecture. Tall, smooth, single pointed blades each rise straight from the ground, some solid green, some pale green, some green with yellow margins, and others spotted. Some blades are straight while others twist slightly. Still others fold into themselves to form a solid cylindrical spear.
Sansevieria continue their popularity in part because these oddities are able to live in the shade outdoors (in frost free areas) or indoors with almost no water at all, as long as they are planted in very well draining soil.
I have a Sansevieria given to me years ago that was my very last houseplant after the rest died or migrated outdoors. It sat in my office and was watered about once every six months – when I remembered. I finally took pity on it and moved it outdoors where it really isn’t as happy as it seemed indoors.
But last night as I searched my front entry patio, I noticed a very small, very unobtrusive, and unfortunately no longer labeled Sansevieria. It sat in a small pot where it had produced a tall flower stalk, the source of the evening’s perfume extravaganza.
The funny thing is, I have at least a dozen kinds of Sansevieria, most given to me more than 25 years ago by the late plant explorer Manny Singer of Singer’s Growing Things. All these years, they haven’t even hinted at blooming, and this year, at least four different types are in bloom. And all fragrant.
Ah, the wonder of plants!