Cereus: a cactus that blooms just a few nights a year

I recently had the honor of being invited to what sounded like a “serious” little party. Actually, it was a “cereus” party, named for a night-blooming cactus.

This party was called at the spur of the moment to coincide with the plant’s blooming, which occurs for just a few nights each year.

An ugly duckling most of the year

A cereus cactus is not much to look at when it’s not in bloom. The spineless cactus being honored at the party I attended had pods of flat, shiny leaves jointed together. Through winter, I was told, it looked downright unhappy.

And cereus is no small plant that can be spirited away into some quiet corner when it’s looking its worst. It quickly grows to enormous proportions. The plant I saw was in a hanging basket with the tips of its stems dangling on one side 5 feet across from those on the other side. Cereus will survive pruning, but must be allowed to grow large if it’s going to make flowers.

It also demands prime real estate in and around the home. For best growth, cereus needs a prominent spot in a sunny window through the cold months, then a partially sunny spot outdoors once the weather warms.

In winter, this cactus needs to be kept on the dry side. It’s more able to recover from stems shriveled by underwatering than from stems rotted by overwatering.

Because growth occurs mostly in the warmth months, summer is also when the plant wants to be fed.

Fragrant and beautiful when blooming

For all of night-blooming cereus’ gawkiness, is it worth growing for just a few days of glory? Correction: a few nights of glory. The blossoms turn flaccid by daybreak, lingering a bit longer into morning only if temperatures are very cool.

As I stepped out onto the terrace to meet the plant, I immediately was swept up in its sweet, musky aroma. The creamy white blossoms, each 5 inches across and comprised of layer upon layer of strappy petals, were as breathtaking to the eyes as to the nose. Pouring out of the center of each blossom was a filagree of stamens, also creamy white. Fat, spiny, expectant buds foretold more blossoms to come later that evening.

Some types of night-blooming cereus can be even more dramatic; there’s one with even larger blooms, up to a foot across. The plant of this species, botanically not really cereus, but hylocereus, is commensurately larger, and its stems have sharp, three-cornered edges.

By comparison, the night-blooming cereus that I saw is easy to accommodate. And if truth be told, not only was the little party in its honor not very serious, but neither is the plant, really. Botanically, its real name is epiphyllum. A number of cacti parade under the common name “night-blooming cereus.”