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Queen of the night

Photo Caption: My Night Blooming Cereus from beginning bud to finished bloom.

Photo Caption: My Night Blooming Cereus from beginning bud to finished bloom.

By Keva Hoffmann Boardman —

I don’t have a green thumb or even a brown one. My thumbs are most definitely black when it comes to growing plants. However, I have somehow managed to sustain the life of a Night Blooming Cereus. This unusual cactus has blessed me by blooming on three separate occasions in the last two months.

As the name suggests, the plant blooms only at night and, incidentally, each bloom only last for several hours. My plant always began opening its buds at 11 p.m., had completely open blooms at 2 a.m. and decidedly closed up and wilted flowers by 7 a.m. I’m exact on the times because I set my alarm to wake me every hour and a half so I could experience “the event”. I even got to see a bat as it flew around waiting for me to leave it to its task of ingesting nectar and doing its pollination thing.

There have been other New Braunfelsers crazy enough or interested enough to have foregone sleep to watch a flower bloom. In the early years of our town, August Forcke, a druggist, prominent citizen and an amateur naturalist, reported the night time blooming of a cactus at his home and that several friends visited throughout the night and early morning to share the event with him. His “Queen of the Night” or Cereus grandiflora or “Dutchman’s Pipe” (the newspaper calls it many names; perhaps he had several kinds?) bloomed in June of 1870, 1871 and 1874. In April of 1878, Mr. Forcke shared that his hundred-year-old aloe had bloomed. Think about it — that means his aloe began life in 1778! Exotic flowers appealed to the naturalist in Mr. Forke as did paleontology. Remember when I told you that a huge prehistoric skull was exhibited on the front porch of his drugstore in the 1870s?

I sensed a pattern in the bloom times of Forcke’s cereus, and with a little googling I learned that the plant likes to bloom in the summertime. Later local newspaper accounts include citizens reporting night blooming cactus bloom events from July through September. These accounts occurred from the 1950s through the 1980s and many of these events were celebrated with “watch parties.” In September 1959, Mrs. Egon Jarisch was featured in an article. She was nurturing two Night Blooming Cereus in the hope that at least one would blossom during the Comal County Fair and she could exhibit it. The article went one to state that she had attempted the same thing the year before but her plant had failed her and decided to bloom the night after the fair closed.

Googling also informed me that blooms can be rare and that one must monitor temperature, moisture and soil conditions closely to encourage flowering. Obviously, I did nothing of the kind. I did, however, do one thing right. It seems the cereus cactus likes to be root-bound. This was a cinch for me — I have an ancient ficus (1980 college days) in its original pot which receives rather intermittent watering. It reminds me by letting its leaves turn yellow and fall off; the dear thing has an uncanny will to live.

The newspaper stories, which feature both male and female gardeners, almost always describe the number of blooms that graced each plant. While all are called Night Blooming Cereus, some are reported as having only one bloom while another might have had 42 flowers! Perhaps these were different species. Mine, as close as my novice self can figure, is an Epiphyllum oxypetalum or a Cereus oxypetalus. Perhaps one of you Master Gardeners can tell me based on the photo. My plant seemed to be timed with the moon, producing three flowers two days after the August “Sturgeon Moon”. Its second bloom of one blossom occurred two weeks later and was followed by another one flower bloom two days after the September “Harvest Moon”. I will have to see if my plant has its own unique pattern over the years. It did survive the 2021 “Snowpocalypse” so perhaps it will survive me.

If I have kept your attention this far, then let me just tell you that as a non-plant person, I am quite enthralled by this little plant. The plant itself is rather gangly and leggy, but the blossom it produces is truly amazing. A tiny pink bud forms on the leaf, growing quickly and swelling in size. The stem takes on a snake-like appearance that makes the bud hang below the plant. Then, one evening you realize there is a loosening of the rosy pink-colored tentacle-like sepals of the bud and you know it is beginning. An intense fragrance is emitted; the scent is strong and sweet like a magnolia but very different. As you watch, you literally can see the broader velvety creamy white petals stretching and opening like a time lapse photo. The bloom opens up wide and is eight to ten inches across. Even more fantastic is the inside of the open blossom. My first thought was, “It looks like a little grotto filled with tiny people under a chandelier,” but it is actually the outer white stigma and the inner cluster of buttery-yellow stamens. It is beautiful, charming, exotic and entrancing. Seriously — it is all these things and it takes place in the moonlight of the wee hours of the morning.

Mr. Forcke, I get it now. I totally understand your, and other New Braunfelsers’, love affair with the Queen of the Night.

Sources: Sophienburg Museum & Archives: Forcke family history, Neu-Braunfelser Zeitung collection, New Braunfels Zeitung Chronicle collection, New Braunfels Herald collection, New Braunfels Herald-Zeitung collection.