There’s a plant I have, sat in the dining room that goes by some very evocative names, Reine de la Nuit, the Queen of Night, Night Blooming Cereus, Brahma Kamal, or, if you want to get scientific about it, Epiphyllum, Oxypetalum. Needless to say this isn’t some bog-standard Northern Hemisphere temperate plant, but is actually a desert-flowering succulent. Only it’s not like any succulent you’ve seen, in fact, it’s a plant the likes of which you’ve probably never seen.
This is a plant that isn’t pretty, but just plain bizarre in it’s sheer alien-ness. It has some very unusual characteristics. It throws up long, thick arching stems that like to clamber on a support but it doesn’t twine, have suckering roots or tendrils, it just flops over onto anything that can hold it up. It can generate new shoots from anywhere, from old wood and from new stems. It will happily throw up new shoots from both at the same time. The tops of the stems can develop into new leaves with no transition, the stem gradually flares out into a leaf. The leaves themselves can develop more leaves at their edges, or they can develop flower buds. The plant is propagated by leaf cuttings but they need to be “sealed” by leaving in open air for a few days before potting into very gritty soil. For a succulent, it has no spines and its leaves – which are tactile and leathery, don’t hold huge amounts of water. Despite this I’ve found it to be highly drought tolerant (it is a succulent after all) but it also likes water, having a significant growth spurt each time it is watered and fed well.
Its flowering is one of the most dramatic things about it. The flower buds develop on the leaf edges and over the course of just a week, a flowering shoot can emerge, first hanging down but then curling back upwards, the outer layers untwist to reveal a white flower with long narrow white petals forming a deep cup that contains a star-shaped stigma and a bed of delicate yellow stamens behind it. A text description and even photos can’t do it justice.
This incredible flower opens in the the course of an evening and emits a very strong fragrance that I can only describe as “earthy”. The flower blooms through the night and wilts by dawn. The whole things last for one evening only and then it’s over. The sheer ephemeral nature of the flowering is very striking and it’s possible to miss it altogether.
The name of Brahma Kamal comes from India where this plant has significant cultural meaning. According to folklore in Hindu mythology, the Brahma Kamal plant was created by Lord Brahma to help Lord Shiva place the head of an elephant on the body of Lord Ganesha. The flower dropped “Amruta” – the elixir of life – from its petals on the body. The flower’s resemblance to a lotus flower only adds to its divine credentials as the lotus is the flower of Brahma and was split into three to create Heaven, Earth and Sky as part of the Hindu story of creation. To have and observe a Brahma Kamal in flower is supposed to bring good fortune to the household.
No matter what you believe, the growth habit and nature of this plant along with it’s ephemeral flowering puts it in a rather unique place in the pantheon of plants. The specimen I have was given to my by my mother a couple of years ago and it flowered for the very first time while they were staying a few days with us. Given they live over four hours away and only visit a couple of times a year, you could say the visit and the flowering were co-incidence or divine intervention.