The night-blooming cereus, a native of Mexico, is one of the most unusual garden plants in existence. Its white, primrose-fragranced flowers, which are huge and spidery in appearance, bloom only late at night, and by dawn, they are spent. The plant itself, with its large, winged, strap-like leaves, adds structural interest to the garden, whether it is grown in the ground or in a hanging container.
Sometimes called Queen of the Night, the night-blooming cereus is a type of cactus. There are about twenty species of the plant, which grows rapidly with little care in most gardens, and is a popular pass-along plant. Night-blooming cereus thrives in full sun to part shade, and—given the right environment—can climb rocks and trees.
Beginning in early spring or summer, depending on geographic location, tiny buds form along the sides of the night-blooming cereus leaves. Care must be taken not to shake the plant or apply much pressure to the heavy leaves, or these buds will fall off. The buds develop quickly, and form a pendulous habit, giving the plant a bizarre appearance. It takes some experience to recognize when a bud is going to open; right before opening, each bud swells to the size of a lemon and points straight upward.
The flower can be as large as a foot in diameter, and as the plant matures, it becomes more floriferous. The night-blooming cereus needs well-drained, neutral (6.6 to 7.5 pH) soil and plenty of water, though the soil should always be allowed to dry out before watering again. Feed with a flower fertilizer at least a couple of times throughout the growing season—more if the plant is containerized. It can be grown indoors, though it is hardy to at least zone 8 and probably to zone 6, despite being frequently described as hardy only to zones 10 or 11. Propagation could not be easier: Just cut off some leaves and stick them in a container of potting soil.
In the 1930s, author Eudora Welty, who grew up helping her talented gardener mother, organized the Night-Blooming Cereus Club in Jackson, Mississippi. The club's motto was "Don't take it 'cereus'—life's too mysterious," a riff on a line from "Life Is Just a Bowl of Cherries," the song made popular by Rudy Vallee. In her short story collection, The Golden Apples, Welty refers to the night-blooming cereus as a "naked, luminous, complicated flower," and uses it as a symbol of the fragility of time.