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Archive for Sunday, October 11, 2009

Night-blooming cereus adds exotic element to indoor plants

October 11, 2009

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The night-blooming cereus, also known as the queen of the night, is a member of the cactus family and looks like a gangly dead bush most of the year. But for one late summer night each year its vanilla-scented flower opens at nightfall, only to close at the first rays of the morning sun. This blossom was photographed Tuesday night using a flashlight for illumination and a macro lens with a shallow depth of field. Flora and fauna of all kinds are making delicate transitions in their life cycles as summer turns to fall.

The night-blooming cereus, also known as the queen of the night, is a member of the cactus family and looks like a gangly dead bush most of the year. But for one late summer night each year its vanilla-scented flower opens at nightfall, only to close at the first rays of the morning sun. This blossom was photographed Tuesday night using a flashlight for illumination and a macro lens with a shallow depth of field. Flora and fauna of all kinds are making delicate transitions in their life cycles as summer turns to fall.

Like many gardeners, I am always looking for new plants to grow, and a reader was kind enough to introduce me to a new houseplant just in time for the dreary days of winter. Night-blooming cereus, aka “queen of the night,” is the latest addition to my indoor plant collection.

About 40 species of cacti are referred to as night-blooming cereus, but they are all closely related and share the attraction of a large nocturnal flower. Blooms are 4 or more inches across and up to 12 inches long depending on plant species. The milky white petals of the substantial blossoms are framed by greenish-yellow or pink outer bracts. Unique reproductive structures in the center of the flower add to the mystique: The pistil looks like a white spider sitting above delicate pollen-covered anthers.

Almost overpowering in small spaces, the fragrant blossoms open in late summer and late at night just as the name implies. Petals close and fade quickly after dawn and do not re-open, although they sometimes produce an edible red fruit.

Turnip-like roots are also edible and were consumed by Native Americans in the plant’s native tropical habitat.

The shrubby cactus that produces the exotic flowers is a little less exciting, with long, thin, leafless stems. Perhaps only a true plantsman can appreciate the characteristic beauty of the thick wavy stems that several references refer to as a lifeless bush.

My new night-blooming cereus has a home in an unglazed clay pot and is growing in a commercial potting mix, which I hope will keep me from overwatering. Instead of using a schedule, I plan to only water the plant when the soil is completely dry — once a week or less.

Night-blooming cereus really prefers a sunny window, so I am going to try it in a west-facing one. If I can keep it alive through the winter, it will have a home outdoors for the summer where it will get more light from the morning sun and a little of the warm temperatures it prefers.

I am told the plant can get a little unruly, so I will eventually add some sort of support system to the pot. For now, I am letting the stems get a little wild as they trail over the sides of the pot. If it gets too out of hand, thin stems can be removed at nodes or at the base of the plant.

Adding to the mystique for me is the multitude of scientific names associated with this plant. Normally, I tell people to look for the scientific name, written in Latin, to confirm they are getting the plant they want. Hylocereus undatus, Cereus triangularis, Cactus triangularis, Peniocereus greggii and Cereus undatus are all scientific names associated with night-blooming cereus, and texts disagree about the distinguishing characteristics of different species.

In warmer climates such as Florida, night-blooming cereus can be grown as an outdoor shrub.

I expect that growing queen of the night will be an adventure, even if I have to wait a few summers for flowers.

— Jennifer Smith is the Douglas County Extension Agent-Horticulture for K-State Research and Extension and can be reached at 843-7058.

Comments

Tandava 5 years, 2 months ago

I have had a couple of these "Queen of the night" plants for many years. They get pretty long and 'leggy', but they need to, I think, in order to develop flowers. Mine have only bloomed during the summer when I put them outside. The plant itself is not very attractive, and one would probably not keep them were it not for the flowers, which are simply fantastic. It will bloom a number of times during the summer, but each flower blooms at night and for one night only. You can tell in the early evening if the bud is going to open that night, and usually by about 11:00 PM it is fully open. Well worth staying up for (if you go to bed early). The "leaves", by the way, are not true leaves, but actually flattened stems.

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