The queen of the night reigns at Wellesley
Published: Wednesday, October 3, 2012
Updated: Wednesday, October 3, 2012 20:10
On the night of Saturday, Sept. 15, an amazing natural wonder occurred in the Margaret C. Ferguson Greenhouses. Unbeknownst to the majority of campus, the night-blooming cereus—also known as the queen of the night or by its scientific name, Hylocerus undatus—was ready to bloom. David Sommers, long-time assistant horticulturist of the Greenhouses, arrived under the cover of night, camera in hand, to capture the queen’s one-night show.
The night-blooming cereus is a flowering, spineless cactus. While some night-blooming cereuses are tall and tree-like, most, like Wellesley College’s variety, are climbers. Found primarily in tropical regions of Central America, Wellesley is lucky to have one in its greenhouses—it’s definitely a foreigner in these harsh New England winters!
The night-blooming cereus does exactly as its name alludes: it blooms only at night. The day before it is about to bloom, the buds swell up, and the usually pointed tip of the bud becomes frayed. The flowers both bloom and die within 12 hours, and the plant repeats this performance periodically between mid-August and mid-September, producing a few buds every week or so. To stop the story here, though, would not do justice to the high drama accompanying the queen’s flowering. First, the flowers only open after midnight, inviting many night-blooming cereus owners to share the experience of staying up late, anxiously awaiting the spectacle. This does not occur solely to torture day-dwelling humans like Sommers; pollinated by bats, the night-blooming cereus needs the cover of night to attract its nocturne pollinator.
When the flowers do eventually open, their sweet smell is very fragrant and, when asked, Sommers reported that it was like nothing he had ever experienced before. Sommers reported that a total of 18 flowers opened on Sept. 15, and the collective smell, which lingered until the next morning, filled the greenhouses and connecting hallways. The flowers themselves, once opened, are around nine inches in diameter, and the petals are pure white, while the outside sepals—the outermost whorl of parts that form a flower—are a pinkish red color. The blooms begin wilting as soon as they have opened up all the way, and by dawn the queen’s reign has ended.
Students can still see the withered remains of this dramatic production by stopping by the greenhouses any day between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. Sommers would be more than happy to describe his firsthand experience to the curious.
Even though students were unable to experience the night-blooming cereus firsthand, this plant is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of oddities contained in Wellesley’s greenhouses. On bleak, rainy days, one can find tropical refuge in the greenhouses and feel far away from the Wellesley bubble of problem sets and inclement weather. The greenhouses are a campus treasure, able to offer both unusual plants and peace of mind to the visiting student.
Upcoming events at the Botanical Gardens include a Mystical Tree Tour on Oct. 12 from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m., where students can enjoy a walk with the trees, and an Edible Ecosystem Workshop on Oct. 13 from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. For more information on the Edible Ecosystem Workshop, contact Carly Gayle (email@example.com). On Nov. 6 at 4 p.m., Tea Horse Road will explore the culture, ecology and health of tea.