Cereus

A classic pass-along plant, the thornless tropical cactus has been shared endlessly between garden clubbers and their friends. Its perfumed evening blossom opens only at night and is wilted by morning.

Goldenrod is blooming, and with early autumn colors hinting at the darkness to come, it won’t be long before daylight saving time ends, and we’re left to reminisce on a porch swing or by the garden fire.

And I’m remembering what hardcore gardeners did during long, non-air conditioned evenings before television and the internet made self-entertainment easier. Mostly we sat outside and murmured quietly, usually about the weather and how the sweet fragrance of evening-flowering four o’clocks powered over the smell of a coming rain.

And we made up stories. My favorite is a Victorian parlor game, a story about a wedding in which everything is a flower. Here’s part of it. (If you’d like a copy of the whole thing, shoot me an email via my blog.)

“Black-eyed Susan married Sweet William after he aster. There was a big crowd — phlox — to witness the bride given away by poppy as the groom’s mother whispered to him ‘forget me not.’ Jack in the pulpit officiated. Their new home will be on Cape Jasmine where they will live in sweet peas, hopefully with baby’s breath. Here’s hoping their passionflower doesn’t end up as touch me not!”

We also waited impatiently for Granny’s potted night-blooming cereus to slowly open its nocturnal fantasy flowers. Eudora Welty did the same thing.

A classic pass-along plant, the thornless tropical cactus has been shared endlessly between garden clubbers and their friends. Its perfumed evening blossom, big as my hand, opens only at night and is wilted by morning.

Actually it isn’t a true cereus, though the flowers look very similar. The real deal is a tall, candle-like, sun-loving cactus. The cascading kinds we call night-blooming cereus, including the rick-rack or zig-zag cactus, are named epiphyllum because, like Spanish moss and bromeliads, they’re epiphytes, meaning they naturally live on rainfall in trees with very little soil.

Pardon my corniness, but this conjures a paraphrased line from the comedic movie “Airplane”: “Surely you aren’t cereus.” Now respond, in unison: “I AM serious, and stop calling me Shirley!”

Anyway, for over 40 years I have grown “queen of the night” from cuttings from my great-grandmother, who every summer made us sit up until hers flowered. As the huge, breathtakingly fragrant flowers unfolded for just a few spectacular hours they are truly a cause for celebration.

Not that the plants themselves are much to look at. Unkempt comes to mind. Unlike smaller, compact “Christmas cactus,” most are scraggly masses of long, narrow, flat, sword-like stems with rounded “teeth” along wavy edges. The leaves, which are actually stems, are easy to cut into sections and root. Most already have aerial rootlets growing from their midribs. They often bloom the first summer.

Unlike parasitic mistletoe, orchid cacti get all their nourishment from rain, bird drippings and decomposed leaves caught in tree cavities where their roots grow for support, which is why the cold-sensitive shade plants are so easy to grow for years in small pots and brought indoors in the winter with little water or fertilizer.

While most folks settle for having a piece of the common white-flowering form, several internet sites offer rooted cuttings of pink, yellow, red, orange or lavender cultivars with names such as Moon Goddess, Black Knight, Texas Flame, Sugar Plum Fairy, Peach Madness and Flamingo Dancer. There are even epiphyllum societies.

I bet you can easily find a night-blooming cereus cutting; trust me, there are folks near you who have it and will share as many cuttings as you’d like. And when yours blooms, create lasting memories by hosting a “queen of the night” party.

• Felder Rushing is a Mississippi author, columnist, and host of the “Gestalt Gardener” on MPB Think Radio. Email gardening questions to rushingfelder@yahoo.com.

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