Night-blooming Cereus is Magical

On one special night every summer, if you’re lucky, you get to witness something magical.

My friends Ellen and Charlie invited me to their home on Creekwood Drive last month for a light summer supper. “Plan to stay until it gets completely dark,” Ellen told me. “That’s when our night-blooming cereus will start putting on its show.”

What, you might ask, is a night-blooming cereus? It’s an astonishing plant, a member of the cactus family, that looks ugly and near-dead most of the time. But one morning in midsummer, on some of the notches in its leaves, faint slivers of white will begin to show. Those slivers expand gradually all day, turning upward as though reaching for the sky, until they burst forth in the darkness as stunning trumpet-shaped flowers. A mature cereus plant will produce several large flowers, which will bloom all night and give forth an intoxicating aroma. Alas, with the rising of the sun, the flowers will collapse and soon disappear.

This miracle won’t happen again for 364 days.

For more than 30 years, Ellen has owned the potted cereus whose blooming I witnessed. “I got it as a cutting from a potter who lives in Beersheba Springs,” she told me. While relaxing there one weekend in the late 1980s, Ellen got word that the potter’s cereus would bloom that night. “She invited the whole town to come witness and celebrate,” Ellen said.

It turned out to be one of the most memorable parties she’s ever attended. “Beersheba Springs is on a mountaintop in Grundy County,” Ellen said. “It’s very dark at night and, except for the frogs and crickets, usually very quiet.” As dozens of townsfolk streamed toward the potter’s yard, the quiet held. “It was kind of like being in church, except that we were outside and were all handed a glass of champagne as we came through the front gate,” Ellen told me. People spoke in whispers if they spoke at all. The potter’s husband softly strummed his guitar. A single spotlight shone on the cereus plant.

And then it happened. Fifteen blooms began to open.

“Of course, we all crowded around the plant and ooohed and aaahed,” Ellen said. “It was absolutely one of the most moving spiritual experiences I’ve ever had. You watch and smell these impossibly beautiful flowers, knowing all the while that within hours they’ll be gone.”

The potter gave Ellen a cutting from her plant, which she has since propagated more times than she can count. “I just cut off shoots and root them,” she told me. “A cereus is simple and easy to grow, though it’s not much to look at as a house plant.” When she moved from Nashville to Cookeville several years ago, she brought her cereuses with her. “I keep them in the house until the danger of frost has passed,” she said. “Then I move the pots out to the yard under my shade trees. They’ll grow tall in the warm weather and sometimes latch onto the tree trunks.”

When July rolls around, she keeps a close eye on her plants. “One year, I didn’t notice the blooms until they were dry and wilted,” she said. “It broke my heart.”

Ellen is careful to move the pots back inside before cold weather arrives. And she’s constantly propagating more cereus plants, which she’s thrilled to pass along to anyone who wants them. She and Charlie graciously invited me to share their last name, which is Cox, with readers of this column. “We don’t want to keep this little miracle a secret,” Ellen said. “Everyone is welcome to come watch what happens in our yard one magical night every summer.”

Who knows? If you’re lucky, the Coxes just might hand you a glass of champagne while someone softly strums a guitar.

(August 7, 2021)