Night blooming cereus puts on a short, but sizzling show

If this were showbiz, the marquee would read, “Appearing for one night only.”

You would call your friends, make plans, wait in line, and take pictures, right?

Well, that is exactly what needs to happen when the night-blooming cereus takes the stage.

These tropical plants produce white or very pale-colored flowers – once a year. There are several different types of night bloomers, all part of the Cacti family. Queen of the Night (Epiphyllum oxypetalum) and Hooker’s Orchid Cactus (Epiphyllum hookeri) are two types that recently crossed my path.

A retired Navy veteran reached out to share his love of the plants. He has spent a lifetime caring for these beauties. Although his navel career took him to many faraway places such as the North Pole, South Pole, Caribbean Islands, Norway, and Morocco, with the help of family, he kept his garden going.

After the Navy, a second career with the Weather Service eventually brought him to West Virginia. Retired again, he is full of stories of penguins, polar bears, Navy towns, and memories of the annual blooms. 

He remembers his mom caring for the original plant when he was a child. After the last frost, she set the containers under their walnut tree. There, they would stay until the temperature began to drop in the fall. Then, she would bring them inside and cover the containers with a sheet for a few months.

Some 80 years later, these potted plants have followed him through many moves. A plant native to tropical rainforests is thriving in West Virginia because of his care. 

Living in his garage over the winter, there is one window to provide indirect sunlight. He keeps them watered but doesn’t fuss over them until spring.

After the last frost, the containers are moved to a spot near the house where they are protected from wind and too much direct sun. Remember, these plants don’t need intense sun. The dappled summer sun will give them the energy to bloom.

The night bloomer cereus plants grow quickly and enjoy being root-bound in their containers. If the plant is healthy and growing, consider repotting every three years.

The Queen of the Night produces a beautiful bloom – so beautiful it was mentioned in the movie “Blue Hawaii” starring Elvis Presley. 

As the buds appear on the stems – get ready; they will open in about a week. Expect the flower to appear near 9 p.m. If the air is heavy with summer heat, it may be closer to 10 or 11 p.m. When open, the bloom is fragrant, filling the yard with its perfume. 

Don’t doze on the event. By 9 a.m. the flower will close and not appear until next year. The good news is there may be other stems that will produce a flower the next night. My Navy veteran friend has seen as many as fourteen flowers appear in a year. This is not spread out over time; it generally happens within 10 days.

I am identifying the second from photos, Hooker’s Orchard, has a very differently shaped flower. The petals are long and slender and have very little fragrance. Again, this is a one-night-only performance. These blooms can be very large, as much as 8 inches across.

Both of these varieties are easy to propagate. Using a sharp knife, make a clean cut on a stem 6 – 9 inches long. Here methods vary. My friend places his cuttings directly into the soil and has been very successful with this method. Others will advise letting the ends close and then place them in soil. 

A bonus to meeting a new friend and learning about his lifelong love of night-blooming cereus was being gifted two of my own. Thank you. I will keep them outside for a few more weeks, then move them to the basement, where they will live until late spring. You can bet if and when I get blooms to open, there will be a viewing party at the little house on a big hill.