I hadn’t known a thing about night-blooming plants until I spent summers in southern California. My friend Mary had an enormous flat-leafed plant that looked like a Christmas cactus on steroids. It lived in a broken yellow recycling bin and its foliage wasn’t anything to write home about. But it had a habit of creating the most complex, astonishing blossoms I’d ever seen, with one of those mild flower fragrances that gets kind of disgusting if you put your nose too close.
You really had to be motivated to see one of those blooms, because they came and went in the night. All in one night. Miss the night and you must wait until next year. There’s something really unruly about that.
One day a few years ago, when we still lived in Hyde Park, I was walking Travis home from the intramural fields where he used to love to play “virtual soccer,” running like a mad dog back and forth along the fence as if he were a goalie. Even as a puppy he could judge where that ball was going to go in the instant right before it was kicked. Now and then he would run right into the midst of play, completely indifferent to how hard the ball hit him. But I digress.
As we crossed Avenue G, I looked to my left and saw a huge flowerpot with a shriveled-up ugly plant that had been set out for yard waste pickup. As sickly as it looked, I knew immediately that it was a night-blooming cereus, and I knew I had to have it. Shoving shyness aside in the face of a botanical acquisition, I rang the doorbell and asked the woman if she’d really meant to throw it away.
“Yes, we set it our for pick-up. We don’t even know what it is. You can have it if you want.”
Driven to the brink of paranoia by the thought that someone would surely recognize this great treasure and make off with it before I could summon help carrying the thing, giving not a single thought to the well-being of my fragile back, I hoisted the heavy pot as best I could and stumbled toward our alley and in through the back gate.
I had a night-blooming cereus.
Selenicereus grandiflorus is one of a number of night-blooming cacti. I took that original one out of its raggedy potting soil and tucked it into a nice clean pot with some yummy new potting mix. It thrived. It would thrive for anyone.
And then I started waiting for flowers.
The two photos above are brand-new: I just now walked out the front door to check on one of the giant’s offspring. These buds, very close to opening, float on their thick fragile stalks like lovely versions of alien creatures. Our weather has just turned hot, so their timing is pretty good; they don’t seem to thrive when things get truly searing.
I have several pots of cereus now. The original giant became just too unwieldy in its huge pot – we can’t handle that level of tonnage any more, and since I no longer have a nice big greenhouse (my current neighborhood does not believe in the aesthetic value of home greenhouses and vigilantly protects us from the threat they evidently pose to our property values), freeze-intolerant plants either need to spend the winter in our living room or hope for the best out in the elements.
The Unruly Gardener and Her Aesthetic Nightmare Back in the Old Neighborhood
Aesthetic Nightmare at Night, with Raindrops on the Lens
So last fall I cut off some of the best leaves and made a bunch of new cereus plants. Difficult as it is to imagine, all you need to do is stick a leaf into some dirt, water it now and then, and watch it grow.
If you’re patient, and vigilant, one night you’ll be able to stand there and watch these blooms unfold, petal by petal, deeper and more elaborate than my paltry photos can convey.