Montgomery’s Tropical Revelation

By on 12 June, 2013 in Gardening, Outdoors with 0 Comments

At last, the flower!

In 2001, after I’d just moved to Los Angeles, my brother came out to visit me from New Mexico. Since he loves the zoo, we decided to take a day trip to the San Diego Zoo. I’m not much for zoos, but that place is amazing. After spending the whole day gawking at captive animals and getting more than a little sunburned, we took a walk through the exhibition gardens. There, in the gift shop, were a selection of alien-looking cuttings for sale. The sign explained that they were epiphyllum, often called “orchid cactus,” and ready to plant. I decided to take a sturdy piece home as a memento of our trip. This was a period of my gardening life when I’d decided I wanted to take in hard cases. Mostly, this meant bringing in other people’s failed orchids and watching them not bloom no matter where I put them in my house or how religiously I fed them the proper food. I figured this weird orchid thing would fit right into my collection.

Turns out, the epiphyllum isn’t an orchid at all. That’s just a name (meaning “from the leaf”) given to the first cuttings brought from South America to England in the nineteenth century. The name refers to the plant’s tendency to sprout flowers from the edge of its leaves.

This week, for the first time since 2001, my epi finally made a spectacular white flower. Just one. It lasted for two days. And I have no idea really what caused it to finally bloom. Here’s what I do know: It seems to like living outside in Alabama.

When I moved to Alabama from the west coast more than five years ago, I started keeping it outside in the summer. I discovered that epis like humidity. A lot. If they aren’t in a humid environment, they grow lots of weird little air roots and seem to invest less energy into wider leaves. Also you don’t really need to water them in the winter. I’m not sure I actually watered mine more than a few times this whole past winter and it did just fine. Perhaps that period of neglect even prompted it to flower? One of the many epi enthusiast websites informed me that the plants bloom for survival, not for decoration, so I may have done the right thing after all.

I am not sure what species my epi is. Internet people seem particularly enthusiastic about a kind called Night-Blooming Cereus which blooms only at night – see this video here from a grower much more accomplished than me. Ours bloomed in the day, though, so it’s probably not that. Whatever species, this plant, probably itself a cutting from plants in South America, traveled thousands of miles to make a flower for just one day in Cloverdale.

Two years ago, I saw another epi at a family member’s Virginia home and brought a cutting back on the plane. I waited to plant this one until it calloused over (otherwise, the Internet informed me, it would rot). This one sits on a sunny window in our bathroom, where it gets a good and humid environment. I have learned that it wants to be fed – a little standard fertilizer has helped it to grow over the years. But it’s not even close to flowering yet. I am thinking of taking it outside to be with its foreign cousin, in the hopes that we might get more flowers soon.

There are times living in Alabama when you despair of ever growing something successfully on account of the clay and humidity and staggering heat (some tomatoes broke my heart a few years ago). There are other times, like this one, when you marvel at the giant greenhouse we inhabit in Midtown Montgomery.

To read more about epis, this forum on Dave’s Garden is a good place to start. There are a number of places selling epi cuttings online, including this shop boasting all the colors of the epi rainbow.

Kate and Stephen are Midtown residents with a cat, a dog, four fish, a garden, an old house and a sense of adventure. They write about life in Midtown here and about life in Montgomery at their blog Lost in Montgomery.

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