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The Night-Blooming Cereus: Tucson’s Queen of the Night

Posted on June 14, 2013

One of the coolest things to do in Tucson involves nightfall, an open schedule, and an unusual and scarce plant – just one of the many strange and wonderful plants that fill our desert home.

Resembling tall, parched sticks, the night-blooming cereus (peniocereus greggii) looks ordinary – some say ugly – 364 days a year. For this reason, the plant is not a common presence in Tucson gardens, but can often be found growing wild and unnoticed in the desert.

But one night a year, usually in mid to late June and between 9pm and midnight, the night-blooming cereus is spectacular. Each plant slowly unfurls one large white bloom, whose size, striking appearance and distinct scent has led to the night-blooming cereus’ nickname, “Queen of the Night.”  Groups of plants in proximity bloom on the same night, allowing the plants to be cross-fertilized by the sphinx moth, peniocereus greggii’s only pollinator.

The best place to see a night-blooming cereus is at Tohono Chul Park, a few minutes’ drive from Westward Look. Named one of the world’s top 10 botanical gardens by Travel & Leisure magazine, Tohono Chul would be a highlight of any plant lover’s Tucson visit. At last count, the park’s collection of 350 night-blooming cereus plants – including a few with unusual pink blooms – is the largest in the U.S.

Each year – usually in June – the park hosts Bloom Night, a much-awaited Tucson tradition. Thousands of cereus plant watchers troop to the park, clutching flashlights to hike winding trails lit by luminarias (Mexican-style paper lanterns), and taking surreal photos of the ghostly, moonlight-white blooms. An intense vanilla-like fragrance fills the air. By sunrise a few hours later, the flowers are gone.

You can, of course, see the night-blooming cereus in other gardens, such as the University of Arizona Cactus Garden, Saguaro National Park,. and the Arizona Sonora Desert Museum. But you would have to pinpoint the one night a year that those particular plants pick to bloom – a stubborn scarcity that only adds to the plants’ allure.

As we post this in mid-June, Bloom Night 2013 has not yet been announced. There is only two to three days’ notice each year, which makes it tough to plan a short vacation around it. But if your Tucson visit happens to coincide with the Queen of the Night‘s yearly appearance, it’s an experience you won’t soon forget.

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