The landscape here in Southeast Arizona can appear a bit bleak late in the winter. As spring approached I naturally was eager to see which plants would green up first. There had been some nice rains during the winter which boded well for our local plant populations.
One fine morning towards the end of March I was just a hundred feet or so from our cabin examining a newly leafed out shrub growing in a clump of mesquite. I later found out from a friend that it was a Four-winged Saltbush. I noticed an oddly-colored vertical shoot back in the shadows of the clump; it was about an inch in diameter, prominently ribbed with short spines along the ribs, and dully colored a sort of purplish green-brown. Some sort of cactus, perhaps?
I walked back to the cabin and described the plant to Bev. I was reaching for a little illustrated guidebook to Arizona cacti, but Bev was quicker and got to the book before I did. She riffled through the book and before long exclaimed “Looks like it might be a Night-blooming Cereus cactus!”
I must say that I was a bit annoyed with her, as after all I was the one who had found the plant! A transitory feeling…
That day both Bev and I made forays out into the desert scrub looking for other examples of the species. Each of us found a couple. They aren’t easy to see, as from a distance greater than three feet they look just like a dead mesquite branch.
In early April I began to see signs of new growth on the half-dozen or so Peniocereus greggii plants we had located.
A note on the various names of the species: the Latin binomial botanical name is Peniocereus greggii and one of the English common names is Night-blooming Cereus. As is often the case, the Spanish name has more poetry than the English or Latin names: La Reina de la Noche, or Queen of the Night.
Here’s a shot of some new growth; whether a shoot or a flower bud it was hard to determine:
After a week or so the shoots had elongated:
Towards the middle of April the flower-buds could be distinguished from the vegetative shoots:
At that time I was guessing that the first blooms would open sometime in May.
On the 27th of April I was scouting around for one of these cacti which I remembered finding a month or so previously. I found it and was pleased to see some buds on the plant beginning to burst, the first one in the area to my knowledge. This may have been because the scrubby mesquites which had sheltered and shaded the plant in its youth had mostly died, doubtless victims of the multi-year drought in the area. The cactus was getting more sun and this caused the blooming time to be in advance of the nearby sheltered specimens, I surmised. A shot of this cactus:
Over the next couple of days the first two flowers opened up, releasing a heavy spicy-floral odor:
This shot was taken at dusk, just after sunset:
And here’s how it looked as the sun peeked over the Swisshelm Mountains the next morning:
Several books I had consulted made the claim that in a given locality all of the Night-blooming Cereus cacti would bloom on the same night. I think this is one of erroneous statements which are copied from one book to another. At least in this locality it seems that the blossoms will open over a period of two weeks or so.
Oddly enough, in my daily rambles through the washes and gravelly flats around here I’ve never encountered this species of cactus outside of a radius of 1/4 mile from our cabin. Perhaps they grow in local clusters or communities and we just happened to have bought a piece of land within one of these communities!