I don’t have one of these, but I would like one, for the name alone! When you think of ‘cactus’, you envision something prickly, but this cactus doesn’t have any prickly-sticky bits at all but does have a magnificent flower.
It’s not an orchid either – it’s a succulent with the botanical name of Epiphyllum oxypetalum, often known as the Dutchman's pipe cactus, Princess or Queen of the Night, and is an epiphyte – an air plant, which is a plant that grows on another plant or object merely for physical support. Epiphytes have no attachment to the ground or other obvious nutrient sources and are not parasitic on the plants they grow on.
It hails from tropical rain forests of Mexico, Central and South America and grows in the treetops, living on the surface of other plants, hitching a ride up out of the gloomy jungle beneath. It takes nourishment from the environment - not the host plant - from fallen leaves, bird droppings and dead insects.
It is prized around the world for its remarkable 23cm large white flowers with an intoxicating scent that only appears after sundown and withers before the next morning.
Different varieties have different coloured flowers or can even be multi-coloured.
It is a nocturnal bloomer, wilting by dawn, but very fragrant, with the blooms not lasting long. I guess you might have to set your clocks to get up to catch one blooming! Apparently, it has a warm, soft, floral scent, with a touch of sweetness, and is said to delicately perfume the air as far as a quarter of a mile away.
They will reach about 2m, growing as a lanky shrub, making them useful for pots, courtyards and under windows, where their perfume will hopefully waft indoors. But the Queen of the Night blooms rarely, and there is no guarantee that it will flower every year.
When it does bloom, its flowers appear only at night, opening around 8 to 10 pm, finishing blooming at midnight to 3 am, and closing - or wilting - by around 10 am the next day. It’s also possible that you could get no flowers in any given year, or potentially dozens! This makes Queen of the Night all the more mysterious and unpredictable.
You can start one of these delightful plants from seed, but this means your plant won’t flower for the first 5 years, so it’s easier and faster to grow from cuttings, which is the common way to propagate them.
If you know someone who has one, beg a cutting, or sneak around with your scissors one day and cut off a 10-15cm long segment in the springtime, or try buying one from a knowledgeable garden centre. Allow the cut end to dry out for a day or so, then place it upright with the dried ‘cut’ end downward in a container full of moist soil.
It grows quickly in nature, and to imitate its natural habitat, grow it in a hanging basket where its long flat leaves can cascade down over the sides.
They enjoy hanging out and prefer a shady area rather than full sun. A north wall is a good place that can offer protection, or in the shade of a nearby tree, to protect it from full sun. If you plant it at ground level, it needs a trellis or a shrub to prop it up.
Keep slightly dry through cool weather and give warm water in the summer - cold water can cause the roots to harden so they won’t absorb the next round of water and fertilizer, and feed during spring with a mild liquid feed to encourage more shoots and therefore more blooms.
Remember that this is a cactus, so it is important not to overwater it. If you use tap water, let it stand for 24 hours before using it, so it will lose the chlorine. Long shoots that come from the plant allow them to grab onto nearby trees or trellice, and in the wild would enable the plant to move along the canopies of the trees in search of better light, so don’t trim them off!