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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

Where Sleeps Titania

By William Hamilton Gibson (1850–1896)

[Born in Sandy Hook, Conn., 1850. Died in Washington, Conn., 1896. A Midnight Ramble.—Harper’s New Monthly Magazine. 1888.]

MY first midnight walk was a revelation, and a severe shock to my comfortable self-conceit. The woods and meadows had been full of faces that I had known and welcomed familiarly for years in my daily walks. But when I sallied forth with my lantern that night, I stepped from my threshold upon foreign sod. I found no greeting nor open palms, and I lost my way as though in a strange land. I opened a fresh humble page in my botany. In whatever direction I might look over the broad meadow I found the same strange complexion everywhere to the limits of my vision, and what “a pleasing land of drowsy-head it was!”
  • “We are all a-noddin’. nid-nid-noddin’,”
  • seemed the universal lullaby. What a convocation of nightcaps and sleepy-heads!…

    The nature of the nocturnal movements and attitudes of plants, both in leaves and flowers, has long been a theme of speculation among botanists. In the case of many flowers the night attitudes have been conclusively shown to have relation solely to their fertilization by insects.

    The drooping attitude of leaves at night was commonly supposed to indicate an aversion to moisture, many plants assuming the same position during rain as in the dew, thus seeming to verify the conjecture; but when the same pranks were played in a cloudy day or a dewless night, the explanation had to be abandoned. In the clover tribe the nocturnal positions seem to be assumed only in the darkness, and this invariably, dew or no dew, while the leaves seem to revel in the rain, remaining freely open.

    I doubt not that if our eyes were sharp enough they might discern a certain strangeness in the nocturnal expression of every plant and tree, such as is remarkably emphasized in the locust, which, by the way, is a member of that same leguminous order of plants with the clovers, especially noted for the pronounced irritability of the leaves and odd nocturnal capers, and whose seeming vital consciousness has caused some botanists to class them at the extremity of their system, in contact with the limits of the animal kingdom….

    Turning to his “posies,” our floriculturist may pick an exotic bouquet from his own familiar borders. His starry “blue-bottles” have raised their horns and assumed the shape of a shuttlecock. His balsams wear a hang-dog look, with every leaf sharply declined. His coreopsis blossoms are turned vertically by a sharp bend at the summit of the stem. Many of his favorites, like the eschscholtzia blossoms, have closed their eyes or perhaps hung their heads, and refuse to look him in the face, while his climbing nasturtiums, especially if they should be of the dwarf English variety, await his coming in hushed expectancy, and their wall of sheeny shields flashes a “boo” at him out of the darkness, which immediately reveals the changed position of their foliage. Every individual shield is now seen to stand perpendicularly, the stem being bent in a sharp curve. In the midst of his surprise the flowers one by one now seem to steal into view, peering out here and there behind the leaves, and he will discern a grimace then that he never noted before. That bright bouquet upon his mantel will henceforth wear a new expression for him and a fresh identity. He will find himself exchanging winks therewith now and then, and hover about the room among his friends in the proud consciousness of a certain preferment not vouchsafed to common mortals.

    The effect of such a bank of nasturtium leaves as the writer recently observed is irresistibly queer. So instinct with mischievous consciousness did it seem that he found himself entering into conversation at once, and laughed outright in the darkness. It has been supposed that this vertical position of the leaf was assumed to avoid the collection of dew, but this is obviously an error. There is no disposition in the nasturtium to avoid moisture, as would be apparent to any one who has watched the leaves during rain, catching and coddling the great dancing drop at its hollowed centre, and loath to let it fall.

    Our midnight gardener has still further surprises in store for him among his plantations. Following the alluring fragrance of his melilot, he turns the rays of his lantern among its branches, and finds them full of nocturnal capers. The single leaflet of the melilot is threefold, like a clover, to which it is closely akin. At night these three leaflets twist edge uppermost on their stems, with the faces of the outer pair turned inward, while the end leaflet folds its face flat to one side or the other, to the cheek of its chosen chum for the night. And there they are, a dozy company in truth, yet not without a subtle suggestion that it may all be a subterfuge for the moment to cover some mischief or other….

    Tall strange columns loom up, white and ghostly, beneath the glare of your lantern, here and there among the potato plants. They prove to be pigweeds, but for strangeness they might have sprung up like mushrooms since your last visit, most of the upper leaves, which during the day had extended wide on their long stems, now inclining upward against the stalk, and enclosing the tops of younger branches. Still other older plants are seen with leaves extended much as at mid-day, but nearly all turned edgewise by a twist in the stem.

    The chickweed’s eye is closed, and

  • Closed is the pink-eyed pimpernel.”
  • The creeping-mallow blossom now ignores proud array of “cheeses,” and the oxalis flower has left her shooting pods to keep the vigil, closed and nodding upon its stem, while its foliage masquerades in one of the oddest disguises of all this somnambulistic company, the three heart-shaped leaflets reflexed and adjusting themselves back to back around the stem with many curious contortions.

    Whatever the disputed function of this nocturnal movement, it has at least been shown to be essential to the life of the plant, careful experiment having demonstrated, according to one authority, that “if the leaves are prevented from so regulating their surface, they lose their color and die in a few days.” Darwin also conclusively demonstrated the same fact with various other plants.

    The sleepiest beds in the garden, at least as to the flowers, will be found among the poppies.

  • Not poppy, nor mandragora,
  • Nor all the drowsy syrups of the world,
  • Shall ever medicine thee to that sweet sleep
  • Which thou ow’dst yesterday,”
  • mutters Iago to Othello. The poppy, “lord of the land of dreams,” sets a beautiful example of that somnolence for which it is itself the emblem and ministering nepenthe.

    In a recent moonlight stroll in Switzerland I visited the poppies in their native haunts, the common wild species whose flaming scarlet sets the foreign summer fields ablaze in the mid-day sun. But I found their fires now smouldering beneath the dew, and giving no token beneath the moon, for the blossoms were closed in luxurious slumber.

    In the dim moonlight I beheld thousands of these folded flowers swaying among the familiar daisies and grasses of my own land, and otherwise attended by a host of meadow flowers whose names I had not yet learned. The night ephemeræ fluttered here and there, and a large moth, which seemed almost phosphorescent in its whiteness, hovered spirit-like close above the poppies. The poppy welcomes all the “meadow tribes” during the day, but at night her four damask curtains are closely drawn, the two inner petals being coiled within each other above the tiny head that wears a crown within, and the outer pair enfolding all in their crumpled bivalve clasp….

    Our evening primrose does not bloom in the dark hours for mere sentiment or moonshine, but from a motive which lies much nearer her heart. From the first moment of her wooing welcome she listens for murmuring wings, and awaits that supreme fulfilment anticipated from her infant bud. For it will almost invariably be found that those blossoms which open in the twilight have adapted themselves to the crepuscular moths and other nocturnal insects. This finds a striking illustration in the instances of many long tubular-shaped night-blooming flowers, like the honeysuckle and various orchids, whose nectar is beyond the reach of any insect except the night-flying hawk-moth. It is true that in other less deep nocturnal flowers the sweets could be reached by butterflies or bees during the day if the blossoms remained open, but the night murmurers receive the first fresh invitation, which, if met, will leave but a wilted, half-hearted blossom to greet the sipper of the sunshine. This beautiful expectancy of the flower determines the limit of its bloom….

    Look! Our misty dell is fast lighting its pale lamps in the twilight. One by one they flash out in the gloom as if obedient to the hovering touch of some Ariel unseen—or is it the bright response to the fire-fly’s flitting torch? The sun has long sunk beneath the hill. And now, when the impenetrable dusk has deepened round about, involving all, where but a moment since all was visible, this shadowy dell has forgotten the sunset, and knows a twilight all its own, independent of the fading glow of the sky. It was a sleepy nook by day, where it is now all life and vigilance; it was dark and still at noon, where it is now bright and murmurous. The “delicious secret” is now whispered abroad, and where in all the mystic alchemy of odors or attars shall you find such a witching fragrance as this which is here borne on the diaphanous tide of the jealous gliding mist, and fills the air with its sweet enchantment—the stilly night’s own spirit guised in perfume? Yonder bright cluster, deep within the recess of the alders, how it glows! fanned by numerous feathery wings, it glimmers in the dark like a phosphorescent aureole—verily as though some merry will-o’-the-wisp, tired of his dancing, had perched him there, while other luminous spires rise above the mist, or here and there hover in lambent banks beyond, or, like those throbbing fires beneath the ocean surge, illume the fog with half-smothered halo. This lustrous tuft at our elbow! Let us turn our lantern upon it. Its nightly whorl of lamps is already lit, save one or two that have escaped our fairy in his rounds, but not for long, for the green veil of this sunset bud is now rent from base to tip. The confined folded petals are pressing hard for their release. In a moment more, with an audible impulse, the green apex bursts asunder, and the four freed sepals slowly reflex against the hollow tube of the flower, while the lustrous corolla shakes out its folds, saluting the air with its virgin breath.

    The slender stamens now explore the gloom, and hang their festoons of webby pollen across their tips. None too soon, for even now a silvery moth circles about the blossom, and settles among the outstretched filaments, sipping the nectar in tremulous content. But he carries a precious token as he hies away, a golden necklace, perhaps, and with it a message to yonder blossom among the alders, and thus until the dawn, his rounds directed with a deep design of which he is an innocent instrument, but which insures a perpetual paradise of primroses for future sippers like himself. Nor is it necessary to visit the haunt of the evening primrose to observe this beautiful episode. The same may be witnessed almost any summer evening much nearer home, even about your porch, and among city walls, heralded by those fresh, dewy whiffs from the night-blooming honeysuckle, where the bright bevies of blushing buds are bursting in anticipation of that “kiss which harms not,” as the welcome sphinx-moth, piloted by the two great glowing lanterns of its eyes, hovers in the murmurous cloud of its humming phantom-wings. How often have I watched these mimic humming-birds in the gathering dusk, whirling about the flowers, following the circuit of each fresh-blown cluster, tilting and swaying in their buoyant poise above the blossom’s throat, only their long bodies visible in the fuzzy, buzzy halos of wings, the slender capillary tongues uncoiled, nearly six inches in length, and thrust in turn deep into the honeyed tubes….

    Most of the nocturnal flowers have thus adapted themselves especially to these long-tongued Lepidoptera, hiding their honey in such deep tubes or spurs that it is only accessible to the hawk-moths. To these there is intrusted the perpetuity of many night-flowering plants.

    In attributing a phosphorescent quality to the evening primrose I have mainly followed the license of fancy, although, if the scientists are to be believed, I have indeed scarcely wandered from the literal truth. For the singular luminous glow of this and other nocturnal flowers has long attracted the attention of the curious, and positive qualities of inherent light have been accorded in many instances. It is true that “the evening primrose is perfectly visible in the darkest night,” from which fact phosphorescent properties have been ascribed to it. “Many perfectly authenticated instances are on record of luminous, electrical, lightning-like phosphorescence playing about flowers. The daughter of Linnæus was the first to note it,” observes one writer. Pursh also subsequently observed and chronicled it. Similar flashes or corona have been discerned on nasturtiums, double marigold, red poppy, geraniums, tuberose, sunflower, and evening primrose, according to these authorities.