Night-Blooming Cereus (Cactaceae)

Origins: New World

The Marie Selby Botanical Gardens prides itself on its living collection of epiphytic plants, the largest in the world, as well as its standing in the world of taxonomy and systematics. So you may have heard here before that we stress, when speaking about plants, that the proper name (the “scientific name” or “binomial”) be used whenever possible, and not common names. “Cereus” is a large genus of cacti which used to be a huge genus, at one time comprising most columnar cacti. Recent name changes and splitting have shrunk the number of true Cereus species, but the name remains as a common name for many columnar cacti, including some epiphytes.

Many plant families can be recognized by their types of flowers and the Cactaceae is no exception. Large, white, and multi-petalled, with a ton of stamens and a stigma which protrudes somewhat from the rest of the flower. Many of these flowers open at night, and for several good reasons. Many cacti live in desert climates, arid areas with no humidity which can be oppressively hot during the day, but cool down very quickly after sundown. Many living things in the desert are nocturnal, spending their days hiding from the sun and their nights hunting for food and mates. Many cacti flowers are animal pollinated (especially moths) and many desert animals and insects (especially moths) are most active at night. Not to mention the fact that it’s so hot and so sunny during the day that the delicate blooms wouldn’t last very long.

Many cacti bloom at night, and many cacti referred to as Cereus are, in fact, not. So, as you can see, “Night-Blooming Cereus” is a bit of a misnomer at best. But if your neighbor happens to excitedly tell you that his night-blooming cereus is going to bloom that night, do check it out, it is a somewhat rare (once a year or so) event, and always beautiful, no matter the species of cactus. Right now at the Marie Selby Botanical Gardens, we have several plants which would be referred to as night-blooming cereus, which have just bloomed, in our parking lot and perimeter gardens. As you come through the Orange Avenue gate, immediately to your south in the Perimeter Succulent Garden is a true Cereus, Cereus hildmannianus, a tall, free-standing bluish-green columnar cacti with many stems. Growing as epiphytes in a couple of the oaks nearby is Hylocereus undatus, a triangular-stemmed epiphytic “night-blooming cereus,” which yields “Dragon Fruit.” We also have Epiphyllum oxypetalum, a flat-stemmed cacti which looks like an undulated leaf with blooms coming off of it, also common in the area as an epiphyte.

It’s beautiful inside the Gardens, but beautiful just outside of them as well. Local residents in the know get out early to jog, run, or walk the dog along our public sidewalks, where they can catch a glimpse of night-bloomers still open. And the price of admission is just right!

Text by David Troxell