She blooms in full and her beauty is only witnessed by the night sky and, by dawn, she wilts even before the sun’s first kiss; with only her fragrant scent left as the ghost of her evening arrival.
Known by many names such as the Princess of the Night or the Queen of the Night, the Cereus cactus is a species of cactus whose flower only blooms at night, typically between the months of July and October.
However, one class of cereus – possibly coming from the species Epiphyllum Oxypetalum – blooms one night a year and enthusiasts of this species make it a point that they do not miss it. The blossom it produces on the night it blooms is described to be the size of a new-born infant’s head and, by dawn, its pristine, white petals wilt and the flower dies leaving only its strong fragrant scent that is equally anticipated by many.
This night-bloomer has trumpet-shaped flowers with creamy-white, waxy petals. In full bloom, the flower can measure up to 4 inches wide and as much as 8 inches long. Depending on how they are grown and cultivated, these cacti can stand erect or be trained to sprawl a trellis. Unfortunately for most of us, this Queen of the Night is only found in deserts, the subtropics of Southwestern United States, Central, and South America, and the Antilles.
However, at least one species of Cereus has been successfully grown from clippings and is now a popular houseplant.
Without their sought-after blooms, these cacti typically look fairly common with gnarled, dry nests or a strange cactus-orchid hybrid with leaves – not really something that will turn heads and make a jaw-dropping impression.
According to Marc Hachadourian of the New York Botanical Gardens’ Nolen Greenhouses, the plant is “kind of big and gangly and awkward,” as he describes the cactus species. He continues by saying that the “lure of those blooms is worth it,” referring to the plant’s extraordinary behavior when its buds begin to blossom.
These night blooming flowers will not actually begin to blossom until they are about four or five years old; and by then, they will only begin with only a few flowers. With a little patience and time though, the incidence of blooming flowers will increase as the plant ages.
Some breeders speed up the flowers’ blooming process by keeping their plants in dark environments all day to mimic night-time conditions during the blooming season. But regardless of the methods to make the buds blossom, the Cereus will only open its buds at night and will wither and wilt by dawn.
You may think that with this peculiar behavior that the plants would have died out by now but these night bloomers are pollinated by a species of moth – called the Hawk Moth – that is drawn to its fragrance. Several other species of nocturnal insects and animals like bats also contribute to pollination.
The occurrence of the bloom is quite a rarity that many enthusiasts and hobbyists make it an annual event where they would gather like-minded friends, family members, and even passers-by to witness the Queen of the Night awake from her slumber in an explosion of intoxicating fragrance.
A Facebook page called The Queen of the Night Society has even turned itself into a small community in their little neighborhood of Hudson, NY. The members of the group have their own plants and they are more than happy to exchange tips and tricks in caring for their little night blooming plants.
At the Tohono Chul botanical garden in Arizona, the staff at the facility spend months closely monitoring all 300 of their native, night-blooming cereus to make sure that they are in peak health and, of course, to know when they are due to bloom.
On the night that the flowers are expected to bloom, Tohono Chul operates late into the night and sets up a small event serving food and drinks to both loyal guests and curious visitors. According to Jo Falls, an educator at Tohono Chul, “…it’s really just an excuse to be out in the desert after dark to see what many people see as this absolutely magical flower.”
Because the flowers bloom according to specific weather and environmental conditions such as rainfall, humidity, and temperature, most species go into full bloom during rainy periods in the summer. Some plants even seem to follow a lunar cycle where buds open up around a full moon.
Blooming typically happens between sunset and midnight and it takes at least an hour to three hours for all the petals to unfold. Once they do, a wave of fragrance resembling magnolia or gardenia will flood its area and the senses of those around it, beckoning them like pheromones to marvel at its beauty.
Unlike the character in Mozart’s Magic Flute, this Queen of the Night is a lady of wonderment and beauty; and like a fickle lover, she will quickly slip away from your grasp once you take your eyes off her when the dawn breaks.