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THE CALIFORNIA GARDEN

A beauty in bloom for only one night

Her cereus' summer flowers may be fleeting, but they stir the memories of a lifetime.

July 12, 2007|Molly Selvin | Times Staff Writer

WHEN my great-aunt headed to assisted living 25 years ago, her patio garden was parceled out to assorted relatives and friends. For no particular reason that I know of, I inherited Carrie's night-blooming cereus, a plant that has become a most unlikely family touchstone.

I know it was that long ago because my memories of our son's tumultuous first months are still perfumed with the flower's scent. Nathan is now 23.

The cereus, formally known as Epiphyllum oxypetalum, had been with us for a while before Nate came along. It had already outgrown one pot and took up much of our small front porch.

Most of the time it was a gangly eyesore, so ugly that years later one clueless landscaper asked, "Do you really want to keep this thing?" A member of the cactus family, the plant has long flat stems that look like leaves and are so thick and fibrous, snails can do little damage. Dead stems turn from a wan green to a gray-mottled yellow and then shrivel, hanging indefinitely until someone hacks them off.

But the flowers are showstoppers.

Desperate for any breeze during the blistering summer that Nate was born, I nursed him on the front porch in the wee hours, watching the blooms unfurl against a starry sky.

The plant is best known by the nicknames the lady of the night or queen of the night. In summertime, pink buds dangle from its long, fibrous stems, swelling to about 6 inches long. The crooked blossoms are no doubt what gave rise to the plant's other moniker, the Dutchman's pipe.

At dusk, the flowers begin to open slowly like a sultry tango dancer. Dozens of creamy white petals unfold to nearly a foot across, revealing feathery yellowish stamen and a vanilla-like fragrance so overwhelming it suffuses our yard and wafts into our bedroom.

The large white flowers help attract the plant's nighttime pollinators, bats and large moths, according to Gary Lyons, curator of the desert garden at the Huntington Botanical Gardens in San Marino. I'm assuming moths do the work in my yard.

One bloom is spectacular enough, but when a dozen open on a single night, they're like that last all-guns-blazing fusillade at a fireworks show.

By morning the closed flowers hang limply like chickens wrung by their necks.

Nathan's first summer probably wasn't the first time our cereus bloomed, but so sleep-deprived was I and besotted by his arrival that the plant moved me to write poetry about flowers opening and children growing, that sort of thing.

I wasn't alone. The plant has inspired a one-act opera, appropriately titled "Night Blooming Cereus," by the Canadian composer John Beckwith, and better verse than mine, including Margaret Gibson's 2002 poem, also called "Night Blooming Cereus."

My daughter, Miriam, arrived on the scene a few years later, and with two young children, I had to leave Aunt Carrie's plant on the back patio, more or less on its own.

Some gardeners fuss over their cereuses, certain that by carefully pruning in the fall and watering more in certain months than others the plant will bloom profusely .

But in much of Southern California, this native of the Caribbean and Central America seems to thrive on nearneglect, taking nourishment from falling leaves and bird droppings, a weekly hosing and the occasional extra shovel of potting soil.

Years back, the plants grew on the grounds of the Los Angeles Zoo, the Huntington's Lyons says. But the colder winters and hotter summers in areas such as Pasadena and the Inland Empire are tougher on the cereus, he adds, unless gardeners take potted plants indoors during extreme temperatures.

Lyons says the plant likes some shade, and he recommends using a slow-release fertilizer to boost blooming. I've rarely fed mine, and some years the poor thing has cooked in full sun.

Yet my erratic efforts were richly rewarded every summer with a series of nighttime extravaganzas.

We'd summon the kids outside to check out the blooms. Momentarily impressed but distracted by homework, television or friends, they would just as quickly dart back inside.

My husband David and I often lingered, watching the night sky and inhaling the scent. My mother, who lived nearby, sometimes joined us and her photos of the plant -- and our kids -- marked those growing-up years.

Mom took up photography as a hobby in her 40s and became so accomplished that she sold travel shots to magazines.

But when illness and depression hit in her late 70s, she had pretty much stopped shooting.

By then, the cereus had the wingspan of a condor, and with no small effort we had successfully transplanted it to the biggest pot we could find.

Mom took her last pictures of the cereus blooms, struggling to use a camera she once operated fluidly.

She died almost seven years ago, and those photos are among the best we have of the plant.

--

LAST summer, after Miriam left for college, the silence in our house was so overwhelming that David and I often escaped to the garden in the evenings after work.

Surrounded by ripening tomatoes and the scent of rosemary, I imagined us as sophisticates dining alfresco in Tuscany, not middle-aged suburbanites with Whole Foods takeout in Mar Vista. We clinked wine glasses and talked of travel.

When the cereus flowers opened, the just-the-two-of-us began to feel OK.

The kids are leaving again soon, one back to college and the other for an adventure abroad.

But it feels easier this summer. The cereus is blooming again.

--

molly.selvin@latimes.com

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