A one night wonder

A special cactus, Epiphyllum oxypetalum, flowers for one night, and one night only. Lawrence Wright couldn't wait until his plant flowered, but it didn't all go according to plan!

Epiphyllum oxypetalum
Epiphyllum oxypetalum flowers for just one night. Image: Lawrence Wright.
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Plants can surprise you. They can start off looking fairly mundane and then do something that makes everyone catch their breath and that’s exactly what happened to me earlier this summer.

During my time training at Chatsworth House in Derbyshire, I was introduced to the rather boring looking cactus Epiphyllum oxypetalum. I mean sure it was big, imagine a Christmas cactus (Schlumbergera) on steroids, at about 15 feet high, but it was a cactus all the same. But this not-so-little beauty has a beautiful secret. For a couple of nights each summer the stage is set for a rare horticultural treat as the plant is covered in dinner plate-sized white flowers. Each flower lasts for one night and one night only, withering to a limp shadow of its former self by about 10am the following morning. 

One morning in early summer, one of the Chatsworth gardeners came running into to the mess room, shouting: “Lawrence you have to come and see this!” In the display house I was greeted by the sight of 30 or so of the delicate flowers clinging onto the last of the night’s splendour. It was in that moment that I knew I wanted a plant. 

Propagation

While at Chatsworth I took a cutting, which rooted and to my amazement, grew pretty quickly for a cactus. I would like to say as a professional horticulturist that it has been treated kindly, but that would be a lie. It’s been knocked off the windowsill more times than I can care to remember – each time snapping off a piece which was in turn rooted and distributed to friends, and my original plant had to endure the 200 mile journey from Chatsworth to RHS Wisley. 

Anticipation

Epiphyllum oxypetalum
Epiphyllum oxypetalum blooms are the size of a dinner plate. Image: Lawrence Wright.

In spite of all of this, a month or so ago a flower bud started to form. The bud began to swell rapidly and as my housemates could probably testify, I gave them regular updates. Finally, not wanting to be selfish it was time to move the plant down stairs so that everyone would be able to appreciate the unfurling beauty as the flower opened. Every morning I would run downstairs in the hope of coming across an open flower, but every morning was filled with disappointment. Still the bud swelled – surely tonight would be the night? But alas every morning it seemed not. My parting remark as I went away for the weekend was a finger wag and a firm “Don’t you dare open while I’m gone!” (yes I talk to my plants). Apparently it seems they often choose to ignore me. 

Smug face

Epiphyllum oxypetalum
All its energy is spent after one night of flowering. Image: Lawrence Wright

Imagine the annoyance when one of my housemates texted me a picture of a fully open flower! I was missing it! Apparently the bud opened to a fully expanded flower in about an hour and filled the room with a light scent, similar to that of a lily. One of my housemates invited our other fellow trainees to come around to see the beauty. I was receiving texts exclaiming the flowers beauty; which did not really help me get over missing the occasion. 

Sunday evening arrived and on driving back to Wisley I was met by a couple of very smug housemates and a rather dishevelled looking excuse of a flower. True, I was disappointed on missing the open flower but moreover I was happy in the knowledge that the delicate, fleeting beauty of Epiphyllum oxypetalum had been shared and enjoyed by many of the Wisley students. After all there is always next year. 

Have a grow

Fancy having a go at growing cacti? Forest cacti such as Epiphyllum and Schlumbergera are super easy to grow and propagate. They are happy in most living rooms in bright but not direct sunlight and cacti are some of the easiest houseplants to care for. Unlike their desert cousins forest cacti require a little more water, but it is important to allow the compost to dry out between watering. 

Propagation could not be easier. Detach a ‘leaf’ (not strictly speaking a leaf at all, the plant is made up of lots of flattened stems) and leave it to one side to callous over for a day or two. Once the base of the cutting has calloused insert the bottom half of the cutting into a gritty seed and cutting compost and water in. Placed on a bright windowsill the cutting should root in a matter of weeks and will begin to produce new stems after a few months. Then all you have to do is wait until it forms a flower bud and make sure you don’t go away and miss all of the fun.

Lawrence Wright

About Lawrence Wright

Lawrence Wright started gardening with his granddad when he was ‘knee high to a grasshopper’ but you would have thought that falling into a runner bean row at 4 years old and being lost in the twining stems would have put him off gardening for life. It didn't. He studied horticulture at Brooksby Melton College in Leicestershire and was a HBGBS (Historic and Botanic Garden Bursary Scheme) trainee at Chatsworth House in Derbyshire. He won the Chartered Institute of Horticulture’s Young Horticulturist of the Year in May 2016 and has just graduated from the RHS Wisley trainee scheme and is now working at Tregothnan as a horticulturist.
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