Vail Daily column: The night shift
As the sky grew dark the other night, I stepped out into the growing twilight to call my kids in from their play and I was treated to one of my favorite nighttime sights. The slightly awkward flapping of a bat caught my eye as he (or she) darted across the yard. I know that most people don’t like bats, and don’t get me wrong, I don’t like them in my house and I have no desire to really touch one. But there is something fascinating about these misunderstood mammals and their nighttime brethren.
Being visual, diurnal mammals, humans don’t often venture into the nighttime realm. But there’s a whole world out there that we only glimpse. In the daylight hours, we admire the colorful blooms of the many wildflowers that dot our hillsides; but at night, it is the white flowers with deep pools of nectar that open wide and await the pollinators who take advantage of these secret, sweet stores. Moths and bats come out to feast on these nectar pools, but they also do the important work of pollination as they flit and flap their way across the moonlit sky.
Night blooming flowers have co-evolved with their night pollinators, providing an incentive of hidden, plentiful nectar in exchange for transferring pollen from one plant to another. Moths, in particular, have very long tongues, and many of the nighttime flowers hide their nectar deep in long spurs, forcing the moth to insert its proboscis (a hollow, straw-like tongue) deep into the flower and ensuring that pollen is collected and deposited.
The most well-known of the night blooming plants include the evening primrose family, and our locally common species has numerous common names, including Moon Rose and Tufted Evening Primrose.
These low-growing plants have four large, white to pink flowers that open as the sun goes down. Each bloom lasts for less than 24 hours, flowering as the sun sets and wilting as the morning sun grows hotter. And these flowers are as fragrant as they are beautiful, saving their sweet scent for those willing to brave the growing darkness. Another night, and the cycle repeats with another bloom opening for its short chance at pollination and reproduction.
But there are more flowers that share the moon’s spotlight, including other members of the evening primrose family, four o’clocks, the sacred Datura plant (which grows farther south in more desert regions), globe campion and the yucca plant. The yucca flowers bloom throughout the day, but it is at night that they release their soapy smelling fragrance, attracting hungry pollinators with their alluring scent.
Bats, moths, and the flowers that they pollinate represent the night shift of the natural world, carrying on the work of pollination long after the sun sets. Colorful butterflies and charismatic hummingbirds get all of the attention, but the creatures of the night have their own secret charm. The month of July brings us the special treat known as a “blue moon,” where we get two full moons within the same month. And while the moon will not actually be blue, its shimmering light will surely highlight the grand show that usually goes on unseen, beyond the windowed glass and flashlight beams. Get your ticket early and let us know what you see!
Jaymee Squires is the director of graduate programs at Walking Mountains Science Center in Avon. Jaymee’s infatuation with all things floral, in this case the evening primrose, inspired this article.