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Living Sanibel: Moonflower (Ipomoea alba)

By Staff | May 25, 2017

The moon vine is a rapid growing, “foot-a-night vine” that coils and winds its way over sable palms, Brazilian pepper and fencing in a thick, blanket-like fashion. PHOTO PROVIDED

A member of the morning glory family, the moonflower is one of very few Ipomoea species that does not bloom in the morning but waits until the evening to open its large, alabaster-white flowers. There are more than 100 varieties of flowering morning glory plants currently recognized. They have been used in the production of medicines, hallucinogens and even as a catalyst for changing latex into rubber by the Meso-American Indians more than 3,000 years ago.

During the daytime and absent of its conspicuous flowers, the moon vine, with its 4-8 inch heart-shaped leaves looks similar to a stand of the invasive kudzu. In fact, moon vine is considered an invasive species in Arizona and Arkansas. Like kudzu, moon vine is a rapid growing, “foot-a-night vine” that coils and winds its way over sable palms, Brazilian pepper and fencing in a thick, blanket-like fashion. Unlike kudzu, the moon vine is native to Florida and blooms a delicate white flower that can be as large as a saucer, measuring between five and six-inches across. Its pure white color, along with its round, symmetrical shape lends it the namesake-moonflower.

The most amazing aspect of this plant is this: you can stand next to the buds and actually watch them open. I refer to this diversion as “watching flower’s bloom,” which, when you think about it, is usually pretty difficult to do. Because each moonflower opens within one to three-minute’s time, it’s easy to stand over a thick stand and watch a half-dozen moonflowers opening all around you. The trick is finding some nearby moonflowers, then waiting for the perfect time to visit them.

Fading daylight is the trigger for moonflowers to open. The flowers bloom only once, with each bloom destroyed by the following day’s sunlight. As soon as twilight begins to set in, generally fifteen-minutes before sunset, or even earlier if the cloud cover is heavy, to roughly twenty-minutes after sunset, the large, two to three-inch buds will open. Look for buds with white and lime-green candy-cane stripping, as these are mature and ready to bloom. As they begin to open the very first thing you will notice is a swelling of the bud, then the tip starts to ruffle as the five white petals begin to show. Within a minute of that happening the bud springs open, as if you were watching one of those unforgettable time-lapse sequences you see in documentaries like Planet Earth or Life. If the wind hits a moonflower just right, it can open in ten-seconds flat. It should be said that watching moonflowers bloom can be terribly addicting, not to mention exquisitely beautiful. As if their free floorshow isn’t enough, they give off a delightful fragrance.

On Sanibel, where I live, there is a large swath of moonflowers located along the old Island Inn Road just across from Tarpon Bay Road in the Sanibel Gardens Preserve. The plant is common throughout southern and central Florida in moist but not swampy areas. All six counties, Sarasota, Charlotte, Lee, Collier, Glades and Hendry included in “The Living Gulf Coast” harbor moonflowers.

The plant is widely cultivated as an ornamental and it seeds can be ordered on the Internet for as little as $2.95 a package. It grows well as an annual during the summer months. Given that fact, anyone in North America, from Anchorage, Alaska to Arcadia, Maine can now watch their personal moonflower plants bloom. So take a few minutes off some quiet evening, find a stand of moon vine, and go out and watch the flower’s bloom. You’ll love it.

This is an excerpt from Living Sanibel – A Nature Guide to Sanibel & Captiva Islands by Charles Sobczak. The book is available at all the Island bookstores, Baileys, Jerry’s and your favorite online sites.