Down in the southern deserts of Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas lives the Queen of the Night. She’s a cactus, but she doesn’t look like a hedgehog, a barrel, a pincushion, or a saguaro. This queen of the night doesn’t attract much attention. In fact, the plant might go completely unnoticed until it blooms.
The Queen of the Night is the Cereus greggii or Peniocereus greggii. The plant has long, slender, woody stems that are a dull gray-green. It lives in the shade of a shelter plant. The stems grow up within another plant such as creosote, mesquite, or palo verde trees. The cactus stems have four to six ribs and very small spines. If not for the support of the other plant, the stems would eventually bend over and lie on the ground. It is difficult to see the plant, even when close, because it looks like dead branches in the bush.
The stems of this cactus may not look like much, but it has two characteristics which make it particularly noteworthy. The first characteristic can’t be seen on casual observation. The Queen of the Night has a large underground tuber from which the stems grow. The tuber on a mature plant may weigh up to a hundred pounds. It stores moisture and nutrients for the cactus. Native Americans living in the desert dug up the turnip-shaped tubers for food and to use as a poultice for respiratory ailments. If the main stem is broken off from the tuber, a new one will grow from the root.
The characteristic for which the queen gets her name is the flower. Peniocereus greggii has spectacular nocturnal blooms. The large trumpet-shaped white flowers open in May and June. They are about eight inches long and point upward. Typically all the plants in one area will open at one time. Filling the air with a heavy perfume, they attract large numbers of pollinating insects. The flowers close soon after dawn and do not reopen the next night. The flower produces a large red fruit that is also sweet and edible.
The Queen of the Night is worth the search, particularly in May and June. Look for her between 1,000 and 5,000 feet on the desert floor or rocky hillsides, lounging within the shade of a creosote bush.
Earle, Hubert W. Cacti of the Southwest. Tempe, AZ: Rancho Arroyo Books, 1980.
Fischer, Pierre C. 70 Common Cacti of the Southwest.