Okay, just so you know, this blog post isn’t going to be all that serious. Because when you look at a night-blooming cereus plant, especially when it’s flowering, seriousness is not the mood it inspires. (Cute blog title though, right?)
Back when Tom was in graduate school at the Ohio State University, he was given a cutting of a night-blooming cereus plant. In the (we won’t say how many) decades that have passed since that auspicious gift came into his hands, it has given birth to so many cuttings, now themselves cereus plant elders, that we no longer know which one of them was the parent of the others.
No matter. All of them are healthy, lush, and thriving in South Louisiana’s subtropical climate. I’d never seen or heard of this plant before I met Tom, and as I got acquainted with his night-blooming companions I was surprised to learn that they’re classified as a type of cactus, since our plants have no spines and aren’t shaped like any cactus I’d ever seen before.
Since the classification and scientific names of ceroid cacti often get shifted around and re-positioned relative to each other, and because Tom’s original cutting didn’t come with a name, the exact identification of our plants is a bit of a mystery. My best guess, though, is that they are the species Epiphylum oxypetalum, also known as Dutchman’s pipe cactus, or Queen of the Night, the latter being clearly appropriate . . .
The word “cereus” was coined in 1625 by a botanist who used the word (from the Latin word for wax, which in 1625 was pretty important for anyone who wanted to see in the dark) to refer to the candle-like shape of one of many cacti having elongated bodies. Most night-blooming cereus species, at least the ones that aren’t being cultured as indoor house plants in places like Ohio, grow naturally from the southwestern U.S. to Mexico, Central America and South America and do, in fact, look like you’d expect a cactus to look, with long bodies and/or arms and hefty spines. Our plants, on the other hand, have long, spineless stems that branch into multiple, lobate stems that look like leaves but aren’t. What makes these plants so remarkable, though, are their wonderfully fragrant, stunningly beautiful and complex flowers.
With some fully-opened blossoms reaching up to a foot in diameter, the flowers of all night-blooming cereus species bloom only at night (this should not surprise you!), some species only once per year, with blooms that are wilted and drooping by dawn. When I first met them nearly 20 years ago, our plants might produce two or three flowerings in a season, but the blooms always occurred between the last week of July and the first week of September. The local climate has changed so much in just two decades that it’s not unusual for us now to see our first cereus blooms in June; as I write this blog on the far side of mid-September, new buds are preparing for what might be a fifth or sixth flowering this year.
The plants are surprisingly easy to grow from cuttings. In addition to budding out new stems and flowers, sometimes the stems sprout aerial roots reminiscent of Merlin’s beard, almost like an invitation to allow them to clone themselves. Some species use their aerial roots to cling and climb on vertical surfaces, maximizing their chances of getting as much sunlight as possible.
Even without aerial roots, though, the cutting of a leafy part of a stem will root in water after just a few days and become its own hefty plant quickly enough, given plenty of warmth, humidity and sunlight, although it may take up to five years to produce flowers. A few years ago Tom wanted to try having a different type of cereus plant so he purchased this one, a dragon fruit cactus (Hylocereus undatus) that lived in a pot behind the house for a couple of years and had truly magnificent flowers. Our plant actually produced a few baby fruits one year but they never matured. We lost this wonderful cactus in the 2016 flood.
In order for Tom and me to see and take in the wondrous fragrance of these exceptional flowers, it’s necessary to closely monitor the growth of the buds and then, on “opening night,” to set our alarms for 1:30 a.m. so we can experience their full, deep-of-night glory. Since most bees and other pollinating insects are active only in daylight, night-blooming cereus must depend on nocturnal creatures for pollination. In some parts of their natural range night-blooming cereus are pollinated by bats, but the majority are pollinated by sphinx moths. We witnessed this ourselves only once, and only for about the length of a heartbeat, but the moth, as big and nearly as noisy as a hummingbird, left no doubt of its presence (see The Gecko in the Bathtub, p. 23).
Whether or not our cereus plants are blooming, we appreciate their hearty greenness, their determined and steady growth, their willingness for us to take cuttings to create new plants, and the refuge they provide for some of the critters that share our space.
If you’re interested in trying to grow your own night-blooming cereus plant, you can find good information and gardening tips here. I wish you the best of luck, and many years of floral wonder!