Night in the Tropics

The days are hard enough, but Lord, the nights. The sleepless nights, when the bed feels hot and close, and your legs ache, and regrets stick to your thoughts like a moist sheet.

It’s not the short winters, torrential rains or blistering summer sun. What drives the pulse of life here on the Gulf Coast are the hot, humid nights.

It’s the nights, not the days, that make the July garden grow or fail. It’s the nights that make Mobile and the Gulf Coast distinctly different from the rest of Alabama and the South.

July days are, oddly, relatively mild in Lower Alabama. Whenever the temperature flirts with the 90s, a fleet of black clouds and a clap of thunder brings the fever down. Temperatures above 100 are almost unheard of.

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Two hundred miles north, in Birmingham, the rains falter and the daily temperatures tick up to blistering. But when Birmingham suffers often through a high of 101, night brings relief and morning breaks at 69 degrees.

In Mobile, night temperatures in July seldom drop below 80. We can be perfectly comfortable in the porch shade of an afternoon, then break into a drenching sweat when the sun goes down. The sopping air of Gulf evening feels hotter than the day.

Come into the garden barefoot, barely awake, to witness it. The birds still sing at 2 a.m.; the bird songs fall in trickles from the trees. The dew stars catch the moonlight in the grass.

Find your way by following the shades of white that take advantage of the moonlit nights. The Formosa lilies signal the path, ivory trumpets suspended on a 6-foot spear. Bend beside the silver shoulders of the native woodland mint, where bumblebees are hanging half asleep beneath the frosty leaves. Fumble to where the tissuey blooms of white ginger hang like origami butterflies in mid-air.

Leaves and flowers are strangely still in this airless night – not just still, but locked into whatever positions the dusk gave them.

Don’t be fooled by peace and quiet: The garden is restless as your sleep.

Plants bred for more temperate zones can live through a scorching noon, but they are struggling now that night has barely cooled to the clammy mid-80s.The tomatoes try to fruit, but the pollen spoils before it can fertilize the flower. The woolly lambs ear leaves melt into a brown knot. The English lavender sends out a flush of leaves, then bursts its spindly stems. Thyme and sage pine away, deprived of cool, familiar European nights.

These European bred flowers and herbs handle the daytime heat with dignity and aplomb. But they are unnerved and undone by warm nights. These plants want a good night’s rest, an evening of cool temperatures that lowers their pulse and reduces respiration. The warm, humid air keeps them breathing hard and growing higgledy-piggeldy all night long. By daylight, they’re disheveled and exhausted.

Walking through the garden at night, you’ll think you hear them pant, but it’s your own breath, straining at the odors of the night.

The crinum lily, queen of summer flowers, exhales a sweetness late at night. The blooms of frangipani are sadly sweeter, like the smell of a soft ripe peach that will be rotten by morning. The brash bloom of the angel’s trumpet breathes a fragrance sweet as poison.

These are the tropicals, veterans of Caribbean nights, and their odors capture the mood of the evening. Dark pollinators flutter above their open mouths.

Only plants bred for the subtropics can stand this incessant respiration. Some require it.

The tropical gingers and salvias face the darkness wide-awake. Not only do the Southeast Asian eggplants, the African okra and the crowder peas tolerate the night heat, they revel in it. Gardeners who leave the Gulf Coast are surprised they can’t take with them these lovers of Gulf Coast nights. Okra, eggplants, summer peas pout in the cool summer nights of the north, regardless of the hot days.

In the swamps and marshes, coastal natives, like red star hibiscus, grow as if they were born for such a night. In coastal bogs, the startling white and crimson throats of carnivorous pitcher plants shine, ten thousand porch lights turned on to invite doomed bugs to dine.

In the garden, tibouchinas, blue as the midnight, litter the walk with their silky petals. Fast and motionless, the Seminole pumpkin wraps its broad silvery leaves in coils around the garden. Clusters of muscadine swill the humidity. Passionflowers construct elaborate temples of red and blue bloom.

The activity is exhausting, but who can sleep?

The pulse becomes audible – amorous and fruitless, restless and still.

Listen for a minute: Climbing up out of the dark aspidistra, the irregular barking of the squirrel tree frog, and a lovesick insect’s tin click.

BLOOM OF THE MONTH

Even the swamps are gardens of hibiscus in full summer. Add the tangy leaves of roselle, the edible hibiscus and the multicolored swirls of the hybrid tropical hibiscus, and you’ll have a garden fit for July.

GULF COAST ALMANAC

Signs of the Season
It’s not the heat; it’s the rainfall. Every day, pinewoods tree frogs tap a warning: Thunderstorms on the way! White shrimp (our sweet little secret) drift with the rains out of the creeks and into Mobile Bay, just in time for the first jubilee.

Planting
July’s constant rainfall makes it easy to establish plants here on the coast. Don’t be afraid to add some great tropical color and flavor to your garden now. You’ve got half the year left to enjoy it.

Pruning
Yes, July is a great time for pruning many plants. Once they’re done blooming, nip finger-sized branches on crepe myrtles, and prune the oldest and fattest stems of hydrangeas to the ground.

Ripe for Picking
Eggplants, peppers and okra galore are ready. Grill all three with white shrimp, and you’ve got a Gulf Coast feast. 

GREEN THUMB EVENTS

July 7: Canning & Preserving

Noon – 1 p.m. A “Lunch and Learn” event. Beverages provided. Free admission.

Jon Archer Agricultural Center • 1070 Schillinger Road N. 574-8445. 

July 9: The Tropical Paradise Garden
10:30 a.m. – 2 p.m. Learn to grow summer blooming bulbs that will survive our humid, hot summers and how to use heirloom bulbs to restore our Southern gardens. Reservations required: $10 for members, $20 for non-members and includes lunch.

Bellingrath Gardens and Home • 12401 Bellingrath Gardens Rd., Theodore. 973-2217. 

July 15: Naturally Smart Gardener Series
5:30 p.m. – 8 p.m. This session concentrates on the natural, sustainable practice of attracting and protecting pollinators. $20.

Jon Archer Agricultural Center
 • 1070 Schillinger Road N. 574-8445. knighec@auburn.edu

Bill Finch has been the voice of authority on Gulf Coast gardening for more than two decades. Talk to him every week, from 9 a.m. until 11 a.m. on the Gulf Coast Sunday Morning show on Talk Radio 106.5 FM. Don’t miss him and WKRG weatherman John Nodar cutting up in the garden every Friday on News 5 at noon.


text by Bill Finch • photo by Kathy Hicks

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