Moonlight garden
Kelly Doren illustration

With lunar illumination, the ordinary daytime landscape can be transformed into a magical moonlight garden. With some planning that incorporates design principles dating to the 16th century, any yard can become an enchanting evening retreat filled with night-blooming flowers, fragrances and sights.

Today, most garden aficionados and lovers erroneously consider England’s Sissinghurst garden to be the historic model for moonlight gardens. It was established by Harold Nicholson and Vita Sackville-West. In 1951, she wrote of her intent to create an evening garden and its inspiration of a glowing moonlit woodland white lily she saw during an evening walk. Sissinghurst is considered a “must see” garden by horticultural experts.

Moonlight gardens, however, were all the rage during the late-1800s in the American and European high societies. An 1800s New England gardener purportedly carried the moonlight garden theme to an extreme. In addition to the requisite plants and hardscape, this Newburyport, Mass. resident supposedly stocked the property with white-hued cats, dogs, sheep, cows, doves and peacocks. 

The antecedent of moonlight gardens, however, has been traced back centuries to the Middle East and Asia. In feudal Japan and China, moonlight gardens were places for meditation and romance.

“The Moonlight Garden - New Discoveries at the Taj Mahal,” printed in 2000 by the Smithsonian Institute, is a collaborative report, the culmination of over a decade of work by scholars from around the world.

It notes, “Moonlight gardens were a tradition enjoyed by Indians before the Mughals, after sheltering from the day’s heat, they took their ease amid fragrant white blossoms and flowering trees in the cooler night air.”

The Mughals, originally from Central Asia, ruled India from 1526-1858, beginning with Prince Zahiruddin Mohammed Babur. Influenced by his interest in natural and cultivated landscapes, and wanting to commemorate his victories, one of Babur’s legacies were gardens.

In the city of Agra, he constructed a group of charbaghs, fourfold gardens, along the Yamuna river banks as well as several extensive gardens. Inspired by Persian paradise gardens, these charbaghs were enclosed by tall walls. Babur’s allies were instructed to do the same.

The “New Discoveries” book reports: “The Mughals added pools and water devices to their moonlight gardens and outlined the raised paths, platforms and pavilions with small oil lamps. No Mughal garden could function without waterworks, which introduced water at a higher level so as to achieve sufficient pressure to drive the fountains and propel the water through channels at different lower levels using an extensive system of aqueducts, terra-cotta pipes, wells and tanks.”

Two favorite and fragrant night-blooming trees used by the Mughals were the red cedar and champa. The red cedar is actually a member of the mahogany family (Toona ciliata M.J. Roem). The champa tree is a Magnolia relative (Michelia sp.). Indians believe it is the incarnation of their goddess of wealth. The Mughals were also quite fond of fruit and planted orchards of fruit trees in their gardens.

While Babur established this type of evening garden, his sons refined them primarily due to the influences of their wives. Their marriages to Indian princesses formed more than political alliances. They blended cultures, too. These women frequently designed the Mughal gardens.

One woman, Mumtaz Mahal, the favorite wife of Babur’s third son Shahjalian, had an indirect, but significant, influence upon the Indian landscape and moonlight gardens. In 1620 at the approximate age of 30, Arjumand Bano Begum, Mumtaz Mahal, died after giving birth to their 14th child. In Agra, along the Yamuna river banks, her grand tomb was built. In homage to her beloved name of Mumtaz Mahal, her tomb became known at Taj Mahal.

As part of the extensive memorial, Shahjalian had an elaborate 24-acre landscape created across the river from the Taj Mahal. Of this landscape the “New Discoveries” book writes, “It was a sumptuous pleasure garden, vastly different from the gardens in the Taj enclosure. This suggests that Shahjalain built the Mahtab Bagh, his Moonlight Garden, as a continuation of a narrative sequence — his ‘Garden of Delight,’ where the promised rewards of paradise could be enjoyed, complementing and reaffirming the somber character of the garden within the Taj enclosure.

 “… the Mahtab Bagh is a moonlight garden, a concept of Hindu origin. As part of this concept, unlike traditional sunlight gardens of earlier Mughal times, moonlight gardens featured night-blooming plants and white plastered walkways which made it easier to see while strolling in the moonlight.” 

The Mahtab Bagh’s octagonal pool was perfectly aligned with the Taj to reflect its image. “Magically,” the book adds, “the image was disembodied by the fountain jets as they fell back in the pearl drop pattern - portraying water as a precious gift from the heavens.” 

The layout of the Taj Mahal and Mahtab Bagh reflected references of a heavenly paradise described in the Koran.

While little remains of the Mahtab Bagh, there is enough evidence left to understand how elaborate this moonlight garden was. Also, these remnants prove Mahtab Bagh was the antecedent of all moonlight gardens.

To create a moonlight garden, the essential elements are plants with white, cream, yellow and/or silvery-gray blossoms and/or foliage as well as fragrant blossoms, such as lilies, honeysuckle, tuberose and evening stock. As indicated in the Mahtab Bagh description, water features, their sounds and reflective traits, are an integral part of this design. Another key ingredient to moonlight gardens is light-colored, preferably white-hued, hardscaping, such as white gravel paths. A contemporary version of oil lamps is outdoor lighting that can add ambiance and safety as well as spotlighting a plant or feature, 

Structures and sculptures can also add texture and drama to the moonlight garden. An example of a structure is the French “Claire-Voie,” which is a hole cut into a hedge or fence allowing a clear view of the rising moon and neighboring landscape. It is also known as “Di Xue,” meaning moon door in Chinese.

Regarding sculptures, one traditional moonlight garden objet d’art is a gazing ball. As their name implies, are adept at reflecting light especially moonlight, which adds extra shimmer to an evening garden.

A good source of information for how-to create a moonlight garden is a book written by Peter Loewer titled, “The Evening Garden — Flowers and Fragrance From Dusk to Dawn.”

Using these guidelines, a magical even mystical moonlight garden with its long and exotic roots could turn any daytime landscape into an enchanting retreat.

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