Tooele Transcript Bulletin – News in Tooele, Utah

September 22, 2009
Queen of the Night

Stansbury Park couple celebrates single-night blooms of unique plant 

This world provides many occasions to celebrate and a party is often in order for a great event. But one Tooele County couple found an unusual reason to throw a great party last week.

In the spirit of happy occasions, Jay and Barbara Spector of Stansbury Park arranged a little party last week in honor of their houseplant.

Giving a houseplant a party may seem a little far out, but this isn’t just any plant. It is a nightblooming cereus (pronounced “sear us”). This otherwise ignominious cactus spends most of its life looking gangly and downright homely, but it is even more so. This plant could be the inspiration for “Little Shop of Horrors” or some terrifying movie about plants run amuck.

“The plant’s kind of creepy looking,” Barbara explained. “They look like they are people eaters or something. Jay and I have been laughing about it saying, ‘This spindly plant is going to hatch out aliens.’”

But unlike the alien hatcher, this strange looking vegetation apparently saves its energy for something very special — to put out a single breathtakingly spectacular flower just once a year starting at 9 or 10 in the evening.

By morning the show is over and the blossom is spent, but cereus aficionados say that that one flower is worth losing sleep for. In fact, this flower is considered so spectacular that many proud owners have a tradition of hosting a special gathering to honor the occasion.

However, the Spectors’ party last Tuesday evening wasn’t the typical night-blooming cereus party. Their plant has defied the odds. Instead of a one-night stand, it put on a show this year that lasted for several nights. They weren’t planning to host festivities at the outset. The two quietly enjoyed the first blossoms, but it just got better and better and so they had to share. “Our plant produced seven buds this year,” Barbara said, “but they don’t open all at once. It has opened every night for several nights. The blooms are huge — the size of a dinner plate — and it smells so good. It fills the whole house with this wonderful fragrance.

“[Monday night] two were opening. It was finally time to go to bed and they still weren’t 100 percent, but the room smelled so good. So I went to bed and Jay cut them off and the whole room smelled like flowers. So I woke up to still smell the smell in the morning. It was still so great. He cut them off because he knew they would be gone by morning anyway.”

Inviting the neighbors the next night was spontaneous. The twoday Jewish New Year was coming up on Friday [Sept. 18] so they decided to start the celebration early with a night-blooming cereus party on Tuesday evening, so Jay could take some pictures. “I thought, ‘Tonight, we will invite people over, then maybe have a glass of wine to toast the New Year.’ The Jewish New Year begins this Friday and Jay and I are both Jewish so it can be Happy Rosh Hashanah,” she said.

As though on cue, the cereus outdid itself.

“We had three flowers open that night. We stayed up until about 11 p.m. Then we finally had to say goodnight to all the flowers. The whole room had this wonderful smell. It seemed appropriate to share the New Year’s celebration.

“This has been a tough year for people and it’s time for a new year. If you are Jewish, you get to start Friday Night. Why not start over right now?” she chuckled. The plant has become part of the family in some ways. A friend of Jay’s in Indiana gave the cereus to him and he brought it with him when he moved to Tooele from Indiana to start his medical practice nearly 30 years ago. The plant has bloomed for 30 years, producing maybe one stunning blossom per year. Perhaps it is advancing age and maturity, or perhaps it is the care it gets, but in recent years it has begun producing a few more of the little buds that appear on the edges of the leaves.

Barbara explained, “It’s just so neat, I’ve never seen this many buds on it. They don’t open all at once, so we can enjoy them for several nights. These are the kind of flowers that you never see. “They are just so big when they open up. They just keep opening bigger and bigger and bigger. You can almost see them move as they open, they open so quickly and they just keep opening. My husband says as they open up they look like the body snatchers.

“The blooms are amazing. They are so unbelievably big. Otherwise the plant’s darn ugly. [People in North and South America) used to dig them up and eat them.

“When I was reading about the plant, the description says it resembles nothing more than a dead bush most of the year. And that’s true. It is gangling looking. We keep it in the front yard area in the summer where there are some trees so it gets constant shade. It needs that.

“And then it blooms one bloom in a whole year, on one special night as the sun goes down. I find that very sad, really,” she added. Two plants have the common name night-blooming cereus — Selenicereus and Hylocereus — but the most common is Hylocereus undatus. They have short, sparse spines and light green to yellow-green stems that climb or hang.

Selenicereus is native to the Caribbean islands and has slender cylindrical stems that are green when young and turn slightly purple as they mature. This plant is also known as “Queen of the Night.”

Although it is a cactus, the plants originated in the tropics. The flowers form on the sides of the leaves. While the wonderful flowers make fans of their owners, these spindly plants are not easy to find. They don’t exactly capture hearts when they are not in bloom so they do not make great display plants for nurseries. Those who have plants generally start them from cuttings rooted in sand. Due to their propensity to the tropics, they are grown as houseplants in a mixture of potting soil and sand. They must stay indoors for the cold months, but an extended retreat outdoors to a shady spot for the summer is as good as a spa for them. Give them a bit of fertilizer in the summer months and they may reward you with a bud appearing along the edge of a leaf in late summer or early fall.

Watch it close because the bud grows rapidly. At about 9 p.m. or 10 p.m. one evening the gala event begins and the blossom expands from a bud to a huge, wide-open flower by midnight. During the winter, a little neglect is in order. Feel free to tuck it away out of sight but put it where it can get plenty of sunshine. Reduce watering, avoid fertilizing, and let the soil dry out between watering. Do not repot too often, because rootbound plants tend to bloom better.

Increase the water to these cacti just a little more in the spring and summer, but not too much. Take heart, if you own one of these plants. It might look like it is auditioning for the next remake of “Little Shop of Horrors,” but take the right care of the homely plant and it will reward you with one night of beautiful, aromatic grandeur.

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