In the Garden:
Middle South
September, 2009
Regional Report

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The splendor of night-blooming cereus is truly a sight to behold.

Oh, Night Divine

I have to admit, where the night-blooming cereus was concerned, I never understood the hullabaloo. But that was before I saw it bloom.

Now I'm reevaluating the scraggly and ungainly plant that was generously passed along by a reader, who called recently to say she had more Epiphyllum oxypetalum than she wanted, and to ask if I would give one a good home. In my care, I wasn't sure "good" was in its future, but I was eager to meet a new gardening friend and willing to give the plant a try.

I've seen monstrous night-blooming cereus, reminiscent of the Little Shop of Horrors. One friend grows the plant inside a huge plate glass window on the back of her home. At 10 feet tall and nearly as wide, it flails its awkward stems in every direction.

The plant I've adopted is much smaller, at least for now. It weighs a ton, however, and two people were required to lift it in and out of the car. I've moved it no further than a little nursery area conveniently located to one side of the driveway, under a crape myrtle.

There the cereus has spent the last couple of weeks, watered once, then neglected. But I did take the initiative to call a gardening buddy, Don Morris, who has a prized epiphyllum by way of a favorite aunt, to ask how to care for my new acquisition.

Lucky for me, I received not only advice, but an invitation to see the night-blooming cereus (also called the queen of the night) in all its glory. With nearly 30 swelling buds growing from its leaf margins, Don knew his plant would flower in the next few days.

And flower it did. The night I visited the plant opened 17 breathtaking blooms and perfumed the air with a pungent fragrance strong enough to bowl me over. It's hard to say exactly what it smelled like, but there was a large measure of sweetness offset with a touch of spice.

The blooms themselves were divine. Before opening each white flower bud was embraced with snake-like reddish tepals. Just before 9 o'clock, the tepals began to open and eventually formed a star behind the bloom. The flat, white inner tepals glowed in the scant light and a long stigma with a spider-shaped appendage at its tip reached well beyond the flower's stamens.

What accounts for Don's success? He says the plant is easy to grow and requires little care. In fact, he keeps the epiphyllum in his basement from October to April before moving it to a partly shady location in the garden. He does not water in winter months, allows the soil to dry somewhat between watering in summer, and feeds only lightly during the growing season.

My favorite plant encyclopedia says well-drained soil is a must, as too much water and/or poor drainage will cause bud drop. In winter, the plant needs protection from frost, but prefers chilly temperatures between 60 and 35 degrees Fahrenheit. During the growing season place it in bright, indirect light. Prune, if needed, after bloom.

After seeing Don's epiphyllum in bloom, I took a second look at my own plant. It is a sad sight, to be sure. But I'm keeping my fingers crossed. Maybe with a bit of luck, my ugly duckling will become something wonderful too.


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