When the heat’s on, light up the night
Perhaps you are not familiar with this magnificent flower that bursts forth from an unlikely source — a cactus. I had heard of it, the fabulous bloom that appears for one night only, causing quite a sensation. My daughter had encountered it in Japan where her host family and their neighbors spontaneously gathered around the dinner table to admire Nature’s fleeting beauty, as the Japanese do best.
I had loved her narration of the excitement this blooming event stirred, had admired the size and delicacy of the massive blossom in a photograph; but it was not until last year that my friend Betty called me over to her house to witness the spectacle for myself. It was a night to remember.
Betty had inherited a very old Epiphyllum oxypetalum (orchid cactus) from her friend Orlando when he downsized to an apartment. He raved about this large, tropical potted plant, lovingly presenting it to her as a family heirloom, but we had our doubts. The green foliage of the flattened, jointed, irregularly branching stems was rather ungainly, tied up to a stake. We did not see much pretty about it, but we thought possibly it was just adjusting to its new home, to give it time. Maybe it would fill out and command the respect Orlando obviously felt it deserved.
The August drama began with a small outgrowth of the flat leaf. An elongated bud emerged, enclosed by fringy pink tentacles. This event marks the time to alert your friends that a nighttime party is imminent. Nature cannot be rushed, however. One of the best things about growing the Queen is that she enhances your powers of observation. Since each nocturnal bloom lasts only one night, you don’t want to miss it, so you learn to be in tune with small changes and enjoy the anticipation!
Within a few days the stem makes a pronounced dip next to the bowl-like bud (which gives the plant another of its common names, Dutchman’s Pipe cactus). When you can begin to glimpse the white petals under the pink sepals, you need to tune in your keenest observational powers. You will be rewarded with witnessing an actual shuddering of the bloom as it summons its energy for the big show. Start assembling your friends and uncork the wine to watch the unfolding of this wonder.
The bloom began to open for us just after nightfall, around 8:30 p.m., to much fanfare and to constant “oohs” and “aahs.” The Queen had fully unfurled her majestic petals by 9:30 p.m. The paparazzi shot her from every angle. The crowd was intoxicated — not by the celebratory wine, but by her exotic perfume that saturated the warm summer air.
If you miss the first bloom, don’t worry — there will be other chances. Older plants, like my friend’s, have several such productions in August and September. And there are ways of predicting the event, since experts think the bloom times are related to humidity or rainfall and that they seem to follow a lunar cycle. So after rainy days, check your cactus and check your calendar to see when the full moon will appear, and you can start a party plan. White petals, of course, glow in moonlight, and the sweet aroma of the bloom attracts nocturnal pollinators that have co-evolved with some of the plants. So although the event seems magical, it’s really just another part of Nature’s genius calculus.
To procure your own plant, you can order inexpensive cuttings from many sources, including Etsy and Amazon, or buy a more expensive and fully rooted large plant that will bloom sooner. Many people like to get a cutting from a friend and root it themselves, but it will take a couple of years to become blooming size.
Cut a 6-inch piece of cactus and lay it in a dim, dry place for three days exposed to the air so that it forms a callus before you even put it into soil. Then fill a small clay pot with potting soil, slightly dampened, and insert the cutting 1-2 inches into the soil, firming the soil around the plant’s base. Place the pot where the cactus will get bright light, but no direct sun. Mist it with water to keep the soil only slightly moist. After a month, your cutting should have developed roots. Some people like to use rooting hormone to establish the plant.
Plants seem to like morning sun, which is said to increase flower numbers, and they dislike overwatering. Blooms are also increased by feeding monthly with a water-soluble houseplant food, but hold off during the months of December and January. Plants can be used in hanging baskets or patio pots and do not require repotting very often, since they like being slightly root-bound.
The cactus can spend the winter indoors in a cool room, where the temperature does not dip below 45 degrees. The Queen needs her rest, but will be building energy for her next astonishing summer pageantry where she is quite the crowd pleaser.