Night Magic

– Posted in: Garden Design

I wasn’t going to post again so soon – after all, I’m a newbie at it – but I have to share about the impromptu garden parties at my house last weekend. Nighttime is a fairly strange time to gather in most gardens, but my friends and I had a reason: My night-blooming cereus bloomed for the first time.

When open, cereus flowers are 8 to 9 inches wide and deep because of the reflexed sepals.
When open, cereus flowers are 8 to 9 inches wide and deep because of the reflexed sepals.

Although mine is a common species – Epiphyllum oxypetalum, I think, although its flowers are considerably larger than species descriptions indicate – this is no ordinary night-blooming cereus. It has a history. A friend gave me my plant. It’s a piece of a plant originally passed down from her great grandmother, Sarah Jean Tindal, from Sumter, South Carolina, to her mother, Precious Tindal Butler. Precious took the plant to Philadelphia in her 20s, and eventually passed it along to my friend, Helen Butler Delaney, who has had it for 20 years. The history passed down with the plant states that “the original piece came from a railroad man who brought it up from Florida.” It has never bloomed for my friend Helen, although a piece given to her brother seven or eight years ago bloomed once.

Buds that are going to open that evening begin to show white at the tip by late afternoon.
Buds that are going to open that evening begin to show white at the tip by late afternoon.

From the start I was determined to make this non-blooming plant do more for me than it ever had for my friend. After all, in a most-beautiful foliage plant pageant, epiphyllums would be laughed off the stage before the talent competition. Plus the “piece” Helen gave me was a honking big thing in a 10 inch pot that filled up the back of my station wagon. It had to be more than just an enormous foliage plant. (The botanical name is misleading: It’s from epi, upon, and phylon, leaf, and stems from the fact that the flowers seem to appear on the leaves, although the “leaves” are actually flattened, fleshy stems.)

I turned to the internet when my library didn’t reveal much more than basic care, with little information on how or why plants bloom. Google led me to Joseph Dougherty’s site, and after reading the articles and e-mailing with Mr. Dougherty, I found the answer: Plant abuse.

Ephphyllums need a cool dry dormancy in winter, said Dougherty, and plants that have slightly yellowed, hungry look bloom best. Here’s his e-mailed advice: “Plants must be root-bound and get lots of sun in the season preceding flowering. If foliage is dark green, then they’re not getting enough sunlight. Foliage must be yellowish to indicate enough light is being absorbed. Then once it is rootbound it will bloom. So don’t overpot. Also let it dry between waterings. Ironically, the plants that look a little abused tend to be the ones that flower most heavily. Don’t love it to death!”

So my plant got moved to more sun (it had lush, dark green leaves when I got it), and spent the winter in my cool garage-greenhouse, where temperatures hover around 50°F. I didn’t water it from November to April unless the leaves looked like they were shriveling.

Cereus blooms have a sweet, light scent that wafts on the night air.
Cereus blooms have a sweet, light scent that wafts on the night air.

I first spotted the tiny, red fuchsialike flower buds that appeared along the leaf margins several weeks ago. They lengthened quickly, ultimately ranging from 11 to 13 inches long. About a week before they opened, the buds, which had been hanging down, turned upward. In all, the plant produced a dozen fragrant blooms that opened over three nights. Next time, I’ll schedule a dinner party to coincide, since I now know better how to tell what night they’ll open-the sepals on the outside of the bloom fold back slightly and a hint of white shows on the tip of the bud. The flowers began opening about 8:30 or 9:00 p.m., and were fully open by 10:00 p.m. They were limp and hanging straight down by the time I got up the next morning at 6:00 a.m. to walk the dogs.

I’m happy to say my friend Helen doesn’t hate me for getting my plant to bloom before hers did. She left here steeled to subject her luxurious, dark green plant to considerably more abuse.

Barbara Ellis

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Carol, May Dreams Gardens September 3, 2008, 9:04 pm

I have a night-blooming cereus, too, with a history. It’s always a big event when it blooms, which is generally once or twice a year, but usually just one bloom. I’d love to have more blooms, so maybe I’ll ‘mis-treat’ it a bit more and see what happens!

I hadn’t even though of getting mine to bloom twice! It’s something to strive for! As I said, mistreatment is the key! Two of the people who came to see mine have plants with lush, dark green leaves, and neither blooms. Another advantage of the mistreatment, I think, is that the plant doesn’t grow quite as fast. If mine gets really big, I’ll have trouble figuring out where to overwinter it.


chey September 3, 2008, 9:51 pm

What a wonderful reason for a garden party! And what a fabulous exotic looking bloom. Congrats on your growing success. It certainly pays to understand the plant.

We were a funny looking group, actually. I had four deck chairs arranged in a row facing the plant. Next year we may move to the deck so we could sit in a circle!


Louise September 3, 2008, 10:28 pm

Barbara!! I blogged about this plant today and few weeks ago. Your pictures look like mine! I love this plant to death. It likes a little neglect and root bound. I live in zone 6 so I bring it inside for the winter and only water it occasionally. Once the weather warms up I bring it outside, leaves will turn brown for a week or so but then it bounce back. This is not the kind of plant you can get from the nursery. I got cuttings from my Uncle.

I took my pictures with a little point-and-shoot digital camera. It has a bunch of different settings, but the one that worked best was “available light” because it didn’t flash.

My plant certainly gets a little neglect and is root bound. It’s sitting in a larger ceramic pot now so that the plant won’t tip over its pot. I know I had a plant years ago that never bloomed, and I got that one from a gardening friend. Cuttings from a friend or relative are the way to go–unless you want to try some of the gorgeous ones that are available on the internet.

Mother Nature September 4, 2008, 4:47 am

Congratulations on your success. My BIL told me he was expecting his to bloom any night now.

Hi! While I was watching mine bloom, I did wonder how many other gardeners were sitting outside waiting for their plants.

Sarah September 4, 2008, 7:38 am

Congratulations. It is as lovely as you said it was, next time I will be sure to be there to see it in person!
Thanks for sharing!

Yes, next year if it blooms, you’ll need to clear the decks and come see it in person.


Lisa at Greenbow September 4, 2008, 7:44 am

What a great tutorial for getting your night blooming cereus to bloom. Mine has bloomed only
one time. I must have been mad at it that year
and didn’t water it much. Ha… I have the same one
that you have pictured. I am glad to know exactly what it is.

I’m hoping that this story will inspire lots of other cereus owners to get tough with their plants, too! I’m also glad that filling up my living room isn’t how it want’s to spend its winters. I’ve got far more room out in the garage for it.


our friend Ben September 4, 2008, 8:31 am

Great story, Barbara! And congrats on your lovely cereus blooms!!!

Thanks Elly! Now lets see if I can get it to bloom again next year!


Nancy Bond September 4, 2008, 11:19 am

What an extraordinary plant, made all the more so by that wonderful history attached to it. 🙂

I agree. I’m thinking next time I’ll know enough about predicting exactly when it will bloom to organize a dinner party. It really was magical to sit outside and watch the blooms open. I could hardly make myself go to bed, because I knew they’d be gone by morning.


Gail September 4, 2008, 11:21 am

Fabulous story….the history is rich and the flower is lovely.

Glad you enjoyed it! I adore having plants in my garden that have a history, and just love that this plant’s story goes so far back.


Lola September 4, 2008, 10:47 pm

Hi I loved you story & the pics. I have one that I do nothing for. It blooms in late Spring. I’ve already potted one up for my Granddaughter & it’s bloomed already. They root so easy. Just lay a “leaf” down on soil & it will root. Mine is so big I can’t move it so it stays outside all winter. No problem.
Did you see the bloom tremble before it opened. That is something to see.

You must be in a warmer climate than I am. I’m sure mine would freeze if I left it outside, so it’s doomed to be chopped back periodically so it can be moved. I’m glad to hear you’ve given a piece to your Granddaughter! Plants with a history add so much to gardens.

I didn’t see the flower tremble before it opened. I’ll have to watch for that the next time.


Theresa/GardenFreshLiving September 6, 2008, 9:43 am

GREAT story! And what a great idea for a party. I bet next year you will have people calling everyday to ask, “Is it ready yet? Do we come over tonight???”

I hope we do! I didn’t even offer drinks or popcorn this year, but a real dinner party or two is in order if it blooms next year!


Lola September 6, 2008, 10:27 pm

Yes I live in a warmer climate, zone 8b. Most of my plants stay outside during the winter. If it’s going to get real cold I just put an old sheet over them. I just noticed today that the plant that I potted for my Granddaughter has several blooms popping out. It’s going to give her a big show.

I’d love to be able to leave more of my tender perennials out. Luckily, I have four options for them and for houseplants in winter. Some come indoors, some stay in my cool garage/greenhouse, some go into the basement, and some go into the unheated garage, which features a picture window that we recycled from the house when we renovated. All four locations offer different gradations of light and temperature, so I have plenty of options.

Good news about your Granddaughter’s plant. Have you moved a plant that’s in bud before? I’m wondering if moving the plant will cause the buds to drop. Let us know if you find out!


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