by Kris Parfitt
– The Capitol Hill Times –
There is a rare blooming occurring at the Volunteer Park Conservatory. Two cacti with nothing more in common than their sparse blooming cycle, bat and moth pollinators and unique medicinal values have opened up briefly at the century old greenhouse.
Something to consider is that all cacti are succulents, but not all succulents are cacti. While succulents are noted for their capacity to store water, the category of cactus refers to distinctive flower patterns found in a particular family of plants.
Outside the conservatory’s east end is a cacti garden with an agave growing a tall spire covered in tiny yellow and maroon flowers. This particular plant blooms but once in its lifetime. After the blooms work their way up the 14-foot spire and die off so will the plant.
Fortunately, the plant is rhizome-based and often leaves its “pups” in the soil where it once grew. It also reproduces via gold bells that form on its inflorescence (stem) after the flowers are done blooming. So despite its pending death, there are successful ways to propagate future plants.
The Agave Filifera is a native to central Mexico, and known to live up to 60 years in wild landscapes. In more urban gardens they commonly bloom at 20 to 26 years in warm climates and up to 50 to 60 years in colder climates. Their flowers attract hummingbirds, bees and butterflies during the day, bats and moths at night.
Agave plants, similar to aloe plants, have been used nutritionally and medicinally by indigenous cultures for centuries. The combination of two agave plant nectars creates a natural sweetener. The roots are used for both increasing perspiration and urination and the pulp is most commonly used as a soothing agent for cuts and burns.
This particular agave plant was a gift to the conservatory from a collector in 1998, according to the City of Seattle. It started blooming Sept. 13 and conservatory gardeners suspect the flowering to continue for at least two more weeks, after which the plant will slowly die. Knowing the flower stalk would grow too tall to be inside the Cactus House, the gardeners created a special small succulent bed just outside the Cactus House front door when it began growing in August. It is now over 14 feet tall and blooming approximately 8 feet up the stalk.
Besides the agave bloom, another rare cactus is blooming, located inside the conservatory on the far west end. “We are delighted to witness this unique plant bloom as it only does it once a year,” exclaimed Kristen Spexarth, an expert conservatory gardener.
The Queen of the Night cacti’s beauty is understated because its buds hold tight for days until each one blooms at night for about 2 to 6 hours. It can take about a week for all the buds to blossom. After the singular debut of the blossom the flower will close up and eventually fall off the plant.
Native to Central America but also found as far south as Brazil, the Epiphyllium Oxpetallum was taken to Asia in the early 1800s where it quickly propagated. The Chinese call this flower Tan Hua, which means “flash in the pan,” and use this name to describe someone who has an impressive but very brief moment of glory. In Indonesia it’s called Tuan Puteri, for Princess. In fact, everywhere it propagates it has a name; Beauty under the Moon, Queen of the Night, Dutchman’s Pipe, and after a Malaysian legend about a beautiful youth from a popular ancient Hindu legend, Bunga Bakawali.
The trumpet-shaped blossoms can grow up to 11 inches long and 5 inches wide when open. The plant itself can reach up to 20 feet in the wilds and just under 10 in urban cultivation. Their shape, size and nocturnal bloom attract bats and moths. The blooms of this cactus have durable flowers that can withstand a bat’s weight. The flowers are commonly found high above the ground away from predators and emit a protein-based, amino acid-rich nectar that supports lactation in bats.
The turnip-shaped root stores both nutrients and water and can weigh between 5 and 25 pounds. The petals are thought to be medicinal in both the Latin and Asian cultures. Rumored to taste like cabbage when cooked, they are most often steeped as a tea to aid in heart health.
This is a fantastic opportunity to support the Conservatory by stopping by to see both the Agave in bloom and the remaining buds of the Queen of the Night. If you’ve never experienced cacti before, the Conservatory offers over one hundred species throughout the building.