Caren White is a Master Gardener and instructor at Home Gardeners School. She has been associated with Rutgers Gardens for over a decade.
While I was taking the Master Gardener course, a fellow Master Gardener was transporting a gangly night-blooming cereus plant. A piece of it broke off and he offered it to me. He said it would be big and ugly, but that once a year, when it bloomed, it would fill my home with a wonderful fragrance.
Having completed the propagation class, I was eager to try my new skills and root this exotic houseplant. I was successful and the cutting rooted, but it didn’t grow much and didn't bloom at all. I blamed it on the poor light in my house.
A few years later I moved into a townhouse with a kitchen that faced southeast. Bathed in sunlight, the scraggly plant came to life. It grew and grew and grew. Finally one night, it bloomed gloriously, filling my home with an incredible perfume as promised.
What is a Night-Blooming Cereus?
The name “night blooming cereus” is used for many different plants that are flowering cacti that only bloom at night. Most bloom just once a year for a single night. A few will bloom up to three times a year. All of them have white or cream flowers that release an intense fragrance. The flowers open after dark. By dawn, they have begun to wilt.
The most commonly grown night blooming cereus is Epiphyllum oxypetalum, also known as the gooseneck cactus. It grows up to 12 feet and flowers from late spring through late summer. The larger plants can flower more than once during a season.
Despite being a cactus, it has no thorns. It does, however, have long stems and elongated leaves. They are very heavy plants. I have mine tied to its plant stand to prevent it from falling over from its own weight.
How to Grow a Night Blooming Cereus
These are tropical plants that are hardy in growing zones 10 through 12. Those of us in northern climates, grow them as houseplants.
If you are growing it as a houseplant, make sure it gets plenty of sun. A southern exposure is best. If grown outdoors or if you move your houseplants outside during the summer, night blooming cereus prefers light shade. Make sure that you delay moving it outdoors until the temperatures are above 40⁰F. And don’t forget to bring it inside in the fall when the temperatures fall into the 40s.
It may be called a gooseneck cactus and classified as a cactus, but it doesn’t like to be dry. Be sure to water it when the soil surface is dry.
Night blooming cereus bloom best when they are slightly pot bound, meaning its roots are a little crowded in the container. This usually happens after a plant has been growing in the same pot for a few years. So if your plant hasn’t bloomed yet, it may still be growing and filling its container.
Why Does My Night Bloomng Cereus Only Have One Flower?
Since the plants flower along notches in the stems, the more stems it has, the more flowers that will be produced. To encourage more stems, you should repot your plant into a slightly larger container when it becomes completely potbound. The so-called experts say repotting should only occur every 7 years, but I wouldn’t wait that long if the roots are pushing up through the top of the soil or growing out of the bottom of the container.
My plant bloomed two years in a row and then stopped. I noticed that it also stopped growing. I repotted it into a larger container and it started growing again. My patience was rewarded with three beautiful flowers this summer.
Why Does a Night Blooming Cereus Only Bloom at Night?
Night blooming cereus are pollinated by sphynx moths and nectar feeding bats. Both of these pollinators are only active at night. To attract them, the flowers emit a strong fragrance and are bright white in color which glows in the moonlight. The moths and bats can smell the fragrance from far away. They follow the scent until they can see the flowers glowing in the moonlight.
How to Grow a Night Blooming Cereus From a Cutting
You can purchase a plant or, if you are fortunate like I was, receive a cutting from a friend’s plant. You can also take a cutting from a friend's plant with permission.
Cuttings should be taken in the spring or early summer when the plant is actively growing. Choose a stem with healthy leaves. Avoid stems that have flower buds or are blooming. Make a cutting that is 2 - 4 inches long. Leave your cutting in a cool dark place for about 2 weeks. The cut needs to callous over. The callous prevents disease from entering the plant while it is developing its roots.
Once the cutting has a callus, dip the callused cut end of your cutting into rooting hormone, place the cutting in a container of potting soil and water regularly.
Rooting hormone can be purchased at any nursery. It encourages the rapid growth of roots but you don't need rooting hormone to root a cutting. You can also just plant cutting into potting soil and water it regularly and it will develop roots, just not as quickly.
You will know when roots have developed when the cutting starts growing new leaves. Only plants with roots can grow new leaves. If a cutting has no roots, it will put its energy into growing roots instead of leaves.
Questions & Answers
Question: What is the long shoot that is growing straight up from my Cereus plant? It is about six feet tall, and now has two leaves at the top.
Answer: Congratulations! Your plant has a new stem. Eventually, that stem will have more leaves and then flowers.
Question: I have my great grandmother's plant, which is over 200 years old! My siblings and cousins all have clippings that have grown into their own plants. We always get so excited when we get blooms. We just had 5 blooms this week. My husband read that they like a mixture of potting soil and sand, but we have never had sand mixed in. What do you think? I don't plan on changing anything since it does well now.
Answer: Oh my goodness! That is incredible. Night blooming cereus are related to cacti so many gardeners grow theirs in potting soil that is suitable for cacti. It usually contains coarse sand, peat moss and some kind of grit like pumice. I don't think that adding just sand is the same and certainly if your plant has been growing happily in the potting mix that it is in, just leave it. You know the old expression: "if it ain't broke, don't fix it". I would be afraid that if you changed the potting soil, it would have a negative effect on your plant.
Question: My Cereus grew several shoots that are 3-5 feet tall over the winter while indoors. I would like to cut them and root them. Can I chop up the long stems into 1-foot stems and root them making for a larger plant or cuttings to give to friends?
Answer: Unfortunately no. Each cutting needs to have leaves to feed the plant until roots have developed. If the shoots have leaves along the stems, you can cut pieces with leaves on them to root, but merely chopping up stems will not work.
Question: How often should you water a night-blooming Cereus, and how much should you water it?
Answer: Water weekly until water comes out of the drainage hole in the bottom of the container.
Question: I received a cutting from a night-blooming cereus about 4 years ago, its been potted for roughly three years now. It has never bloomed but has lots of steams/leaves. It now has a few long steams that seem like they have little baby roots growing all down them. Is the plant trying to tell me something? It sits in a West facing window that gets decent sun from early afternoon and gets brighter through the evening.
Answer: Your plant is trying to tell you that it's not getting enough sunlight. It needs a south-facing window which will have sun most of the day. If you don't have a south-facing window where you can grow this plant (I know that they can get quite large - mine is steadily taking over my kitchen!), you can add some artificial light. You don't need to spend a fortune on fancy grow lights. A standard fluorescent fixture will work just fine.
Question: How do I grow night blooming cereus into a tree?
Answer: Night blooming cereus are natives of the desert where there are no trees. They sprawl rather than climb, so it is not possible to grow them in tree-like orchids which are rainforest natives.
Question: My night-blooming cereus has a few stems with elongated leaves that are close to 6' long. Can the "leaf" with the little string growth and plant it? I am wanting to encourage more stems with "leaves" if that makes sense. I received mine from a friend 2 years ago and it hasn't bloomed yet.
Answer: There are a couple of reasons why your night-blooming cereus hasn't bloomed yet. One is that it is not getting enough sunlight. Another reason would be that it has not yet filled out its container. Night-blooming cereus needs to be pot-bound before they bloom. No matter what the reason is that your plant hasn't bloomed, it is not a good idea to be taking cuttings to propagate more plants. This will only stress the plant and may even kill it.
Question: I "dead head" all my other plants. Should I remove the blooms of the Cereus once they're done?
Answer: I always wait until the blooms are ready to fall off. If you try to remove them right after they bloom, you will create a wound in the stem. Allowing the flowers to die off naturally allows the plant to scab over where the flowers are attached to the stem so that there won't be an open wound which would allow the disease to get into the plants.
Question: Do night-blooming Cereus have to be in the dark to bloom?
Answer: No. They should be treated like other plants and kept in sunlight during the day.
Question: My plant is several years old and has been blooming a lot. I have been told it has to be more in the shade than sun. Reading your article it seems to me that might not be quite right. I would like to put it on the patio facing east. Getting sun until about noon then it's shaded by the sunroom. Do you think that is too much?
Answer: Night blooming cereus that are grown outdoors, or set outdoors during the summer, need light shade. Plants that are grown indoors need lots of light. A southern exposure is best. The reason why the plants need "more" sunlight indoors is because they are only getting light from a window. Outdoors, they get light from all directions which is too bright for them so they need some shade for relief.
Question: What about temperature? When should I bring a Night-Blooming Cereus plant indoors?
Answer: You should bring your plants indoors when the nighttime temperatures fall below 50 degrees Fahrenheit.
Question: Will the night-blooming cereus plant bloom more than once? Mine is on its second set of buds.
Answer: There are different varieties of night-blooming cereus. Some will bloom up to three times a year.
Question: I have noticed lighter color ovals surrounding each air root nub along two leaves of the cereus. I've not seen these ovals before. Are they indicative of a problem?
Answer: Night Bloomng Cereus are pretty disease resistant so I don't think you have a disease. The plants develop air roots in rooms with high humidity. Try lowering the humidity or move your plant to a location with lower humidity. The ovals and the air roots should disappear.
Question: My cereus plant actually got some fruit. Some of them are only about thumbnail big, others about golf ball size. They have been on the plant all winter. Can I use them to seed more plants?
Answer: You don't say if you are growing your plants indoors or outdoors. If you are growing it outdoors, then it could have been pollinated and the fruit could have seeds which you can try planting. If your plant is growing indoors, there are no moths or bats to pollinate the flowers so the fruit doesn't have seed.
Question: How often should the Night Blooming Cereus be watered?
Answer: I water mine once a week.
Question: Can I cut and preserve a flower? My daughter is an artist and would like to draw this flower.
Answer: I don't know of any way to cut and preserve the flowers of night blooming cereus. They are ephemeral flowers that last only one night. I would suggest that either your daughter draw the flower during the night while it is open or take a photo of it when it is open so that she can draw from the photo.
Question: I have 40 plus blooms tonight in Cocoa Beach Florida! My 11 year old would like to give a flower to her teacher tomorrow morning. I have been searching online for over an hour but can not find an article that explains the best way to cut a flower and if it blooms should be refrigerated. How can I cut and preserve cereus flowers?
Answer: Unfortunately, night-blooming cereus cannot be used for cut flowers because the flowers only last a few hours. They open at night and close and die in the morning. This is because they are pollinated by nocturnal insects. There is no reason for the flowers to stay open during the day so the plant does not waste energy keeping the flowers alive for any longer than absolutely necessary.
Question: Is it ok to cut off the red seed pods off?
Answer: Yes, it is okay to cut off the red seed pods.
© 2017 Caren White
Caren White (author) on July 05, 2020:
It must have smelled great!
Pauline on July 04, 2020:
We moved to Orland March 2, 1967. There were a few cacti growing on a tree in the front yard. The former owner told us they were night Blooming Cereus. They bloomed that June and every year since. Over 100 flowers in one night many times.
Caren White (author) on March 23, 2020:
Hi Ruth, two things come to mind. The first thing is light. If your plant is not getting enough sunlight, it will not bloom. A southern exposure or supplemental lighting is best. This also happened to me. I had mine in the sunniest room of my house for years and it never bloomed. I moved to another home with south facing windows and it bloomed the first year. It just needed that southern exposure.
The other problem may be that the pot it is growing in is either too large or too small. These plants won't bloom until they are slightly pot-bound, meaning the roots have filled the pot. Once they get too pot bound, they will stop blooming. Check your pot and if there are roots growing out of the drainage hole or the entire plant is lifting out of the pot, it is too small. Repot into a slightly larger pot.
ruth on March 23, 2020:
I've had my NBCereus for over 6 years I grew it from clippings and it's never bloomed. Any suggestions? Would really like to have it bloom. :)
Caren White (author) on February 13, 2020:
That's wonderful that you have a "family" plant to pass on. Thanks for sharing!
Rosalee.email@example.com on February 12, 2020:
Night blooming Cereus has been my family over 50 yrs I am 72 and I remember the 1st time the plant bloom@ your house I was about 10yrs old. I love plants I just brought 2 leaves here in TX for daughter-law I will plant it so it will remain in the family
Bernard Hensler on November 07, 2019:
I have three night blooming cactus. After flowering all three plants have, what I believe are female red seed pods. OK to cut these off. I did this last year with no adverse affects to the plant.
Caren White (author) on July 07, 2019:
It must smell amazing when your plant blooms!
Linda on July 06, 2019:
My plant is over 50 years old and I have blessed others by cuttings and separating the plant. I have found that by using fertilizer spikes I can encourage flowering. Last summer we had 15 blooms. Beautiful.
Caren White (author) on July 21, 2018:
If your plant is outdoors, my guess would be that the missing leaves were eaten.
Ben Ward on July 20, 2018:
We have a Very old plant...at least 50 years old. She has bloomed very well for years. This year “Audrey” from little shop of horrors, had one lead that had 5 buds. She is outside. Some of the other leaves have buds that have already bloomed. The one with 5 disappeared. We are thinking they were eaten, unless it is common to falloff when there are so many right next to each other on one leaf.
I on May 20, 2018:
I've had mine over 40 years. It has always been a repeat bloomer (meaning it blooms at least twice a year. Sometimes 3 times). Will not bloom the first few years when you start one. But when it does....wow!
Caren White (author) on June 20, 2017:
It sounds like your plant is getting too much sun. When grown outdoors, they need some light shade so either move your plant to a shady corner of your balcony or move it indoors near a sunny window.
Debbie on June 20, 2017:
Hello. I live in Calif. I have a potted Cereus plant on my balcony. It's facing southwest. The plant is healthy and quite hearty! I had 3 small blooms that just fell off after growing 2 inches or so. Any suggestions?
Caren White (author) on January 06, 2017:
Thanks, Jill! I am partial to unusual plants.
Jill Spencer from United States on January 06, 2017:
Gangly is right! But what a wonderful bloom. Cacti really are fascinating and your writing is lovely. Thanks! --Jill
Caren White (author) on January 05, 2017:
You're welcome Kristen! Just be warned - it is a very LARGE plant. Full grown, it's 12 feet. Mine seems determined to take over my kitchen. Thanks for reading and commenting.
Kristen Howe from Northeast Ohio on January 05, 2017:
That's a beautiful plant. I would love to have one this year. Thanks for sharing.