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GARDEN Q&A

Lady of the Night

November 01, 1987|ROBERT SMAUS | Robert Smaus is an associate editor of the Los Angeles Times Magazine.

Q: Can you identify the flower known in Spain as Dama de Noche ? If my memory serves me correctly, it is a shrub and blooms profusely in southern Spain in late summer. It has white flowers that open at night and exude a fragrance sweeter than jasmine.--A.G., Topanga

A: "Powerfully fragrant at night. Too powerful for some people," is how "Sunset New Western Garden Book" describes Cestrum nocturnum . It is common all along the Mediterranean, though here it's called night jessamine. The long, whip-like branches sent up from that rangy shrub bend almost to the ground in late summer, when they are covered with creamy, tubular flowers. In winter, those flowers are followed by plump, blueberry-size fruit that are white in color. Night jessamine is quite common in Southern California though seldom sold at nurseries because it comes up from seed dispersed by birds. Some consider it a weed of formidable proportions; it is certainly as easy to grow.

Q: My gardener just planted rows of Aptenia cordifolia outside my house. I know it is a perennial that bears small red flowers in spring and summer, but what is the translation of the botanical name and the proper way to care for it?--S.L., Burbank

A: Aptenia is one of the many ice plants, though it looks less like an ice plant than most; its leaves look more like conventional leaves. It tends to be short-lived, as are most ice plants, though it will last several years. For a planting to continue to look good, individual plants need to be replaced as they die. They get by on minimal water after their first year in the ground--too much summer water can bring on root rot. Weeds easily invade plantings of ice plant, so keep an eye open for intruders.

The botanical name of Aptenia means "wingless." Most botanical names are a little obtuse to the non-botanist because they describe parts of the plants not usually paid much attention--in this case the valves of the seed capsules. Cordifolia translates as "heart-shaped leaves," a characteristic a little easier to see.

In general, botanic names are simply a way to classify plants. The "Dictionary of Plant Names," by Allen J. Coombes (Timber Press), explains their derivation and meaning and tells how to pronounce the sometimes-ponderous names. Botanical names are often changed when more is learned of the plant's botanical characteristics. Aptenia , like many other ice plants, used to be a Mesembryanthemum .

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