Queen of the Night
Lured by PlantFiles photos of exotic blooms and outrageous scent, I eagerly accepted a Mississippi DGer's offer of cuttings for postage. Epiphyllum oxypetalum, Night-blooming Cereus, Queen of the Night! People throw parties and stay up late to enjoy this night-bloomer. I imagined myself doing the same. Sure, it might take a couple of years for the plant to grow to blooming size, but it would be worth it!
I was a little skeptical as I looked at the sword-like leaf and stalk I'd been sent, but I stuck the pieces into a tall plastic cup filled with damp potting mix and extra perlite for good drainage. Sure enough, roots formed, and soon I needed a bigger pot. And then a bigger pot, as the plant put up more shoots. Once I'd moved it to a 12 inch pot, it was no longer putting up shoots, it was sending up stalks like young saplings, stalks that widened into flat, twisted leaves.
Finding room indoors for this gangly, unwieldy plant was tricky. But Epies are tropical, and I live in Maryland. I couldn't leave it outside to perish, not with visions of fragrant, hundred-petaled blooms in my head! I cut off a couple of pieces that stuck out way too far and hauled it inside before frost. I even gave it a prime spot by the window. It responded by doubling in size! Still no blooms.
My ‘Queen of the Night' continued to grow without blooming for several years. When I trimmed it back, I was careful to leave some of the old growth intact, as I'd heard only older, rootbound plants bloomed. Then, one spring day - I spotted a bud! Without the PlantFiles photos I'd studied so thoroughly, I wouldn't have recognized this odd pale nub on the side of a leaf. It grew to the size of my thumbnail, and I started getting excited. Then it fell off.
That started a pattern with this plant. Every few months, a bud would form, and I'd start planning my "Flowering Queen Party." Then, either the bud would fall off, or it would start swelling enticingly just before we left for a weekend trip, and I'd come back to see a spent, limp bloom. Alice might have sighed, "Blooms yesterday, blooms tomorrow, but never blooms today."
I learned more about this plant over the years. It likes a bright window in winter, but in summer too much direct sun can damage and fade the leaves. It's a succulent, so it's pretty drought tolerant. Regular watering, however, produces a lot of additional growth. You can try to constrain its habit by shoving a tomato cage over it and chopping off anything that can't be tucked into the cage. Extra shoots and even pieces of leaf can be cut off and rooted for unsuspecting friends.
During a recent busy week, I hadn't paid much attention to the plants on my deck beyond quickly watering them on hot days. So I didn't spot the bud when it was tiny. I didn't have a chance to fret over it as it grew. When I finally found it, it was already finger-length, and that same evening it started to swell. Yippee! We were home for the weekend, and I had no plans for the evening. Heck, to see this plant finally bloom I'd probably have cancelled any plans!
I checked on it every 20 minutes, then every 10, then every 5 as the bud contracted and rounded. When the first few petals were released, I cheered. As I was snapping photos of the half-opened bud, the remaining petals released simultaneously, with an almost-audible "POP!" With nobody to see but my cat, I did a happy little jig and took another couple dozen photos.
Of course, as the flower gradually opened, I kept bending close to sniff it, anticipating its legendary fragrance. Some little while after the bloom had fully opened, it did release a scent. My nose twitched, and I moved closer – and nearly gagged. Intoxicating aroma, my Aunt Fanny! To my nose, the scent was strong and musky, almost bitter, with no hint of the sweetness I love in jasmine or paperwhite blooms. I was dismayed.
My disappointment couldn't last, though, as I studied the amazing, intricate bloom before me. Was it worth the wait, worth putting up with such a gangly, space-hogging plant? I think a bloom like this is something nobody should miss. And now that I've seen one, I'm content. I bet I can talk somebody into adopting this plant before fall's first frost. I'll just show them these photos!
Photos by Jill M. Nicolaus. Move your mouse over images and links for more information: let the cursor hover for a few seconds, and a pop-up caption will appear.
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