When my friend Francis Kingsbury told me about his night-blooming cactus houseplant, I was all ears. Francis went to lengths to describe the beauty of the flowers and the heady fragrance. “The scent fills the whole house,” Francis said. Adding further intrigue, Francis said that the plant only blooms at night and by about 10 the next morning, the blooms fade and wither.

Then, to my surprise, Francis told me he would bring his about-to-bloom plant over and let me keep it for a while so that I could observe the blooming cycle and enjoy the style and fragrance of this unusual climbing cactus.

Returning home, I quickly cleared off a plant table near an east-facing window. Reading about this plant, I learned that it likes bright but indirect light. This location would provide the perfect setting.

When Francis appeared the next day with his plant, all was ready. We set the cactus in the center of the table and allowed it to sprawl on either side. And although he forewarned me that the plant itself was not exactly a striking beauty, I found its structure appealing in its homeliness. The stems, which can grow to an amazing 20 feet long under certain conditions, resemble ferns more than cacti, being fleshy and simple. However, they give the impression of being compound because of the serrations that don’t quite touch the stem. Also, the lobes grow opposite each other, adding to the plant’s charm. Who doesn’t like zig-zag stems, after all?

Whatever Works

Francis mentioned that his cactus didn’t bloom as profusely as he would have wished. That was, until he set it outside in summer. After bringing the cactus inside in fall, the blooming cycle, stimulated by the summer sun (the books say to provide some shade if growing outside, but this sat in direct sun), was stimulated to the point that several dozen buds formed, promising many nights of beauty and fragrance.

Francis has propagated many duplicates of his original plant. And again, his method differs from the suggested procedure. Using no rooting hormones and plain, old potting soil, Francis selects only stem ends that have bristles on the end and then cuts perhaps 6 inches off the end. These he inserts in potting soil in a small pot and lo and behold, all his efforts were successful.

To this, I say “whatever works.” This plant lover has demystified the seemingly complex process of maintaining and propagating Queen of the Night cactus (Epiphyllum oxypetalum).

One thing Francis found, and all sources that I consulted agree with, is that Queen of the Night needs to be rootbound. That is, the plant must stay in its original pot as long as possible, even if the pot seems unusually small for the full-grown plant. Becoming rootbound has much to do with the blooming process, so if you plan to grow one of these fascinating plants, let it sit in its original pot for the duration.

Anticipation Mounts

Francis said the plant usually begins blooming about 8 p.m. or so. So when at least one bud was swollen to the point that it appeared its bloom time was imminent, I found myself eagerly waiting for nightfall to begin.

The cactus finally blooms. Tom Seymour

Usually retiring early, I found myself staying up later than normal. But the cactus failed to bloom. Francis had told me that it would probably take a certain number of nights before the big event, so it was clear that I was over-anxious.

Then, arising early one morning, I detected a sweet fragrance downstairs where I kept the cactus. On the night that Francis had predicted, it had bloomed and the bloom was still pristine. The bloom itself sort of resembled that of an orchid and without going into lengthy details regarding its structure, let me say it was as showy a flower as you will ever find.

My conclusion is that while Queen of the Night cactus only blooms for a short time each year, and then only at night, it is more than worth anyone’s while to grow one. It will more than reward you with its style, beauty, fragrance and even its unusual structure.

Tom Seymour, of Frankfort, is a homeowner, gardener, forager, naturalist, registered Maine Guide, amateur astronomer, magazine and newspaper columnist, and book author.