Night Gardens

The sun vanishes. The pearl of a moon rises. Magic happens.

This story appears in the March 2013 issue of National Geographic magazine.

In the nocturnal narrative of a garden at night, the dramatis personae are wildly fragrant blooms that unfurl in darkness like jasmine, tuberose, gardenia; luna moths with wings the color of celadon; and scarab beetles iridescent as opals. The moon, which illuminates this stage, borrows its light from the sun. Its ashen light, the Greek philosophers knew, is reflected. A night garden invites reflection. Unlike the sun, the moon welcomes our gaze. We can wax poetic, wane with melancholy—howl, even—and admire the wonder of an obverse world where plants reach out, not to sunlight but to the faint glow flung to Earth by a diadem of stars.

Color is mostly irrelevant in a night garden. Because of how the eye sees, even the most incendiary reds and oranges turn into a monochrome of silver and grays under the waning moon. The retina, the sensitive lining of the eye’s interior, is layered with photoreceptive cells called rods and cones. Rods, which detect the intensity of light, can sense low levels of illumination. But cones, which distinguish color, require a threshold of light higher than provided by the fading moon. In the absence of that threshold, color washes away. (The long exposure and sensitivity of digital imaging do what the retina cannot, which is why we see color in these photographs.)

Science, so informative, can be so rude. The perfume of flowers at night is nothing more than a ruse. “Gardens at night are more fragrant than gardens at day because most nocturnal pollinators have poor eyesight so must rely on their sense of smell to find flowers,” says John Kress, curator of botany at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History. The world of night bloomers and their pollinators is an alternate universe finely honed through eons of evolutionary selection. Daytime pollinators like butterflies, birds, and bees rely on visual cues telegraphed by bright colors; night-shift workers like beetles and moths depend on fragrance, the luminescence of white petals, or—as in the echolocation of bats—the faint outlines of shape.

Enough. Better to linger in the dream-dusk of imagination and walk in the Pavilion Where the Moon Meets the Wind in the Garden of the Master of the Nets in Suzhou, China, or through Vita Sackville-West’s White Garden at Sissinghurst Castle, England, frosted with white tulips, lilies, anemones, cream delphiniums, gray-white campanulas, and Iceberg and White Wings roses. They were planted, she wrote, in the hope that “the great ghostly barn-owl will sweep silently across a pale garden ... in the twilight.” Or we may draw from the past and conjure the pleasure gardens built by Mogul rulers, cooled by pearls of water from marble fountains, canopied by trees heavy with pomegranates and oranges and painted with moonlight, like the fabled garden of Shalimar near Kashmir.

The word “paradise,” Elizabeth Moynihan, an architectural historian, says, can be traced to a transliteration of the Old Persian word pairidaeza, a walled garden. “The Paradise promised in the Koran consists of several terraces of gardens, each more splendid than the last,” she writes. The open-air palace of an Islamic garden was literally and figuratively paradise on Earth, a place to drink wine in silver pitchers, eat Kabul melons, and listen to poetry.

“Remote and closed as this soul of Islam remains,” recalled the French writer Vicomte Robert d’Humières after being entertained in the early 1900s by the brother of the maharaja of Jammu and Kashmir, “I doubt if we ever felt it nearer to us than that evening, among the fountains and the night-blossoms of the garden of Shalimar, while the full moon of August, from above the snows of the Tibetan frontier, poured down its clear light.”

If a garden is a reach to reclaim Eden, then perhaps our longing is best rewarded at night. The moon forgives the blight laid bare by sun. The cankered flower, the desiccated leaf, the rotted branch are swallowed by shadows, leaving only the illusion of perfection, silvered by starshine, gilded by moonlight.