The Queen of the Night is a night-flowering cactus with a real sense of drama. It blooms just once a year, for one night only. As you’d expect of a plant that puts all its reproductive energy into a single brief fling, it’s quite an extraordinary performance. The flower is huge, deeply fragrant and glows as white as a full moon. Still, it’s a precarious way to make a living, and the true Queen, Selenicereus grandiflorus, is not often seen in cultivation.
For gardeners liable to miss a once-a-year event, a more reliable late-night show is offered by the pretender to the throne Epiphyllum oxypetalum, which is also commonly called Queen of the Night. Here she is:
The epiphyllums are a large gang of epiphytic cactus native to south and central America, and colloquially known as epicactus or epis. In their native jungle they like to hang out in the treetops, fitting their roots into leaf-filled forks and crevices. Surprisingly these conditions are easy to replicate on balconies and courtyard and gardens in Sydney so the epis are popular pot plants.
Most commonly seen is Oxypetalum, which is easy to propagate from leaf pieces – it will even root from the wrong end of a cutting so mucking it up is hard to do. This plant is a climber and its long stems want a bit of support. Let it clamber through a tree, provide stakes, or allow it to lean against a wall or fence. It wants bright light to produce flowers but the leaves will yellow and look sick if grown in full sun.
Truth is, it’s a pretty ugly plant and you wouldn’t bother if the flowers weren’t so extraordinary. They last just one night, but occur all through the summer, so if you get stuck in front of ‘Game of Thrones’ and miss one show, you can catch the next. The flowers start to open about 8pm and are fully open an hour or two later. If you’re not staying up late, pick the blooms and bring them indoors. The fragrance is incredible.
There are some 8000 named varieties of epi hybrids, with coloured as well as white flowers, some of which open during the day. And there are better-looking species too, such as E. anguliger, which is variously known as the zigzag cactus, fishbone cactus or ric rac cactus. You can guess what the foliage looks like. E. guatemalense var. monstrosa has mad scalloped leaves that curl over on each other. The spidery flowers are lemon and white and the fruit is an edible pink globe (the hot-pink, hand-grenade-shaped dragonfruit are relatives). Hybrids of these species work well in hanging baskets or scrambling over walls.
To find the queens and their extended family, keep an eye out at Bunnings, at school fetes, and expect a see a few oddities at the Collectors’ Plant Fair at Hawkesbury Racecourse in Clarendon in April.