Janet Queen

Night scented stock, Matthiola bicornis

Night scented stock, Matthiola bicornis, is already in flower in gardens where it was sown last month. It is one of the easiest annuals to grow for perfume, and seed can be sown every three weeks from now until the end of July in order to keep a supply of fresh plants. Packets of seed are usually generous in quantity with enough seed in one packet to provide a whole summer of fragrant evenings. It can be sown directly into damp, well-cultivated garden soil and lightly raked in, or scattered and mixed into the surface of a pot filled with moist compost. With regular watering, the seed germinates quickly. A pot of night scented stock nestling by the door or garden gate is one of summer’s best pleasures; the evening aroma is sweetly heady, and there is also the opportunity to observe the range of moths that will be attracted to its open flowers just as dusk is arriving. Also, the more moths that are around, the higher the chance there is of bats being attracted to your garden to hunt them as prey. At night, the tiny, cross-shaped flowers of night scented stock are wide open and displayed in a hazy lilac cloud, then as dawn approaches and the flowers close, the plants develop their ragged morning appearance – a daytime disguise that remains in place all day, giving no hint at all of blossom or perfume.

A similar, but more tidy, disguise is adopted by the plant known as midnight candy (Zaluzianskya capensis). Its flowers are folded away neatly in rounded, maroon-coloured buds through the day, but when evening arrives, they open to reveal star-shaped flowers with white petals. Its common name is well deserved – when all its flowers open as dusk approaches, it is easy to imagine you are standing in the doorway of an old-fashioned sweet shop surrounded by vanilla-coated, sugary fragrance. To achieve the best from this half-hardy plant, seeds need to be sown under cover in April. I sow little pinches of seed in individual 10 cm pots, wait until the seedlings have germinated and developed their first few leaves, then put a tray of pots in a cold frame to harden off. By the first week of June they are ready to be planted out into larger containers. Again, these are plants for doorsteps, patios and entrance gates; anywhere you or other people may be lingering long enough to breath in the delicious, evening perfume. Visitors will often stand still, looking bemused and curious, wondering where on earth such an unexpected, strong fragrance is coming from, not realising that these small flowers are responsible.

It must be a coincidence that the two annuals mentioned above, which are amongst the best for evening perfume, have both been named after 16th century physicians, resulting in awkward botanical names. Matthiola bicornis honours Pietro Andrea Mattioli (1500-1577), personal physician to the Holy Roman Emperor in Vienna, and Zaluzianskya capensis is the namesake of Adam Zaluzansky (1558 -1613), professor at Prague University and a working physician there during the late 16th century plague years. Fortunately, both plants have descriptive common names that are easily remembered and no trouble to pronounce.