Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Night Blooming Cereus

Selenicereus grandiflorus is a member of the cactus family and is a vigorous vining plant. For one night each year, its exquisitely scented flower opens as night falls, then closes forever with the first rays of the morning sun. The genus, Selenicereus, is derived from Selene, the Greek moon goddess, and cereus, meaning "candle" in Latin. Grandiflorus is Latin for "large-flowered." The term "night blooming cereus" or "Queen of the Night" is often used for this night blooming cactus.
This flower was new to me until a few years ago, but it was grown at the Royal Gardens at Hampton Court Palace before 1700. (The garden itself goes back to the 1530's, when Henry VIII had it made because he wanted to outdo the French king's garden at Fontainebleau, so you know it had to be extremely elaborate.)  Carl Linnaeus, the Swedish botanist whose system for naming, ranking, and classifying organisms is still in use today, described the flower in 1753. Finally, Johann Jacob Haid (1704-1767), a German engraver, made this botanical illustration of the night blooming cereus.

The plant usually begins to set flower buds in June. For some reason, this year mine started blooming on May 21. As you will see, the plant has wrapped itself around a palm tree in my yard. It grows very quickly, splits off into many separate vines, and continues on an upward path toward the top of the tree. For three hundred and sixty-four days, the vines are not only gangly, but also their snake-like appearance is somewhat sinister. Then, when it blooms, it takes your breath away. The transformation makes me think of a very, very ugly duckling turning into a majestic swan.

These buds are ready to bloom tonight.
These are the same blooms, and they have begun to open, but they are not yet fully opened.

These are the same blooms later in the evening. They are the first blooms on the first day that the cactus has bloomed this year.

A fuzzy bud appears along the edge of one of the many snake-like vines. You need to watch it daily to gauge when it will bloom. You don't want to miss the flowering display, because each bloom only lasts for that one night. By sunrise the flower is spent. The day of blooming, the bud will begin to open about 9 or 10 pm. Once they're ready to open, they do so in dramatic fashion, literally before your eyes -- you can see the movement.
This is a single bud, and it is still the first day of blooming.
The bud has partially opened, but it is not yet in full bloom. 

The single bud is now in full bloom. You can see why they call it "Queen of the Night."

The same bloom as viewed from the side

Unfortunately, all good things must come to an end, but I wish these flowers could stay around for a little longer. The bloom is spent, and it's just a matter of time until the shriveled bud falls off the vine.

The size and shape of the blooms is outstanding. The flowers are sturdy and magnolia-like, and once fully open, they will tolerate light for moderate periods without wilting. Even the glare of a floodlight for a few minutes at a time will not harm the show. But the petals collapse quickly at dawn, and will not reopen. If you live in the frost-free areas of Florida, you can grow night-blooming cereus as an outdoor ornamental. They can be trained along fences or up trellises, or they may be planted at the base of a palm tree and left to their own devices to grow upward and twist around the tree as mine has.
After the second day of blooming, there were no blooms for four days. Then, on Day Seven, the buds were  ready to put on a show, and the blooms have been the most plentiful. If you have a night blooming cereus, consider hosting a late night party for when it is in bloom. Your friends will be amazed. The only tricky part is figuring out exactly when the most buds will bloom. After obseving the way the cactus blooms from year to year, I can recognize when they are ready to bloom, but only in the daytime for that evening's bloom. Strands on the tip of the bloom get a little awry, and maybe I’m imagining it, or maybe the tips move in the wind, but it seems to me that the strands are “twitching” in preparation for the big show. So your friends have to be on call for a same-day notice.
Day Seven, and these buds are clustered rather high in the tree.

Blooms up and down the tree on Day Seven

A high cluster of blooms

A bud ready to open on Day Seven
The single bud opened beautifully on Day Seven

This bloom is enough to take your breath away.

The bloom as seen from a side view

Three buds on Day Seven

Three blooms on Day Seven, the best day yet, and probably the best day this season
Today is Day Eight, and there are fewer buds today. 
It is Day Eight, May 28, and although the number of blooms is diminishing, their beauty isn't.

A side view of this exquisite flower

It is Day Twelve, and the flowers are still blooming, but becoming fewer with each passing day.

Becky and the blooms, rendered as an oil painting.

On Day Thirteen and Fourteen, there were no blooms. But on Day 15, June 5, a few blossoms appeared.
The three buds on Day Fifteen are clustered together and appear to be very strong.
The three buds in bloom

Two blooms on Day Fifteen are still flourishing.

One of the blooms

The other bloom

If you have been inspired to grow this plant yourself, ask for a cutting from someone who has a plant. They root very easily. Take a section of stem and allow it to callous over before planting it. Put it in sandy potting soil or cactus mix and moisten it. It should be rooted in three to six weeks. It may be two or three years before it begins blooming,  but the wait is worth it. There are also mail order companies which can supply you with this plant, or one that is another kind of night blooming cereus, epiphyllum oxypetalum. This latter plant has very similar flowers, but doesn't have the same climbing vine stem. If you keep a plant like mine in a pot, you will have to stake it or provide a trellis so that  it will have support to cling to. If you plant it outdoors, and you are in an area of the country that is frost-free,  it can cling to a fence, a trellis, or a tree. If it is potted, keep in mind that the plant needs sun, but not full sun all day, and you need to protect it from the cold. I have given cuttings to friends, and they have had no problem growing the plant.  So far, although the plant has bloomed for them, they fail to witness the bloom because it comes and goes so fast, and they haven't paid close enough attention to it. Ah well, there's always next year.

The last bud on June 8, Day Eighteen, of the blooming cycle of the night blooming cereus

On June 8, the night blooming cereus, Queen of the Night, bloomed for the last time this year. It's been great fun taking photos of the blooms, both day and night, for the last eighteen days. I took many more photos of the plant than I've shown you here, but I tried to show different configurations and aspects of the buds and blooms without being repetitious. It's now time to say, "Au revoir" to the night blooming cereus--til we meet again next year.

1 comment:

  1. soo easy to grow.. I have rooted cuttings in water also and they get a lot of roots, i haven't tried to put a cutting in soil after letting it scab over yet but i will..
    these are beautiful on a lattice or similar so they will climb up and around and have sprouts a wonderful plant

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