About four years ago, a friend of mine gave me a cutting from her Epiphyllum oxypetalum, commonly know as Dutchman’s pipe cactus.
The mother plant was enormous, reaching to the ceiling of her plant room. But the cutting itself was a most insignificant-looking thing – a pencil-slim piece of stalk with nary a leaf or bulge to be seen. I planted it, however, and to my delight, tiny excrescences appeared several weeks later that turned into flattish leaves. Slowly the thing grew and grew, and more leaves sprang from those pencil-like stalks. It became a most impressive plant, arching and curving up from the pot.
The years passed and I waited for signs of buds and flowers on this night-blooming cactus. I waited and waited. More leaves appeared and then another branch sprang forth, reaching nearly three metres up and across the ceiling. Now this was too much – the thing was getting out of hand and something had to be done.
Holding my breath, I snipped off the offending limb, and then, a week or so later, transplanted the whole plant into a larger pot. Not two weeks later – I could scarcely believe my eyes – tiny lumps formed along the edges of some of the leaves, springing from the veins themselves. Was this what I had been waiting for all these years? I counted them; there were 17 altogether. Gradually they lengthened (although six dropped off when they were 2.5 centimetres long), dangling down toward the floor, growing thicker and ever more grotesque. Each one was surrounded by tendrils that curled protectively around the bud itself, which some three weeks after its first appearance was now nearly 10 centimetres long. Then, to my amazement, almost before my very eyes, each bud turned upward and horizontally toward the windows. Yes, it did resemble the shape of the storied Dutchman’s pipe. This movement took all of 36 hours. Extraordinary!
The following evening I noticed that the tip of each bud was showing the slender points of whitish petals. Two hours later, one had opened to a width of nearly 2.5 centimetres. This was at 7:30 p.m. as the light was fading. I might add that by this time, the camera was set up, the flash arranged, everything was properly focused and I had settled down to wait for darkness to fall. By 10 p.m., the show was at its height. The flowers opened to a massive diameter of 25 centimetres, the tendrils curved briskly around the chalice of finely veined and fringed white petals, while the throat of the flower itself was a dazzling array of the tiniest stamens, each bearing a minute tip of golden pollen. So finely etched were the petals that they resembled the most delicate feathers of some exotic bird, and, at the same time, the whole house was filled with the erotic perfume of those 11 flowers, opening silently into the night.
I took picture after picture, holding my breath and daring to hope that the blinding flash would not destroy the structure of the plant or cause it to wither prematurely. But no, all was well, and one of those photographs accompanies this article.
The next morning it was all over; the flowers drooped silently, dully, toward the ground. A few days later, they had withered and dropped off. Sic transit gloria indeed. But now, some five weeks later, 10 more buds are developing – you can imagine my excitement. Worth waiting for all these years? You bet!