The enigma of Epiphyllum oxypetalum/ Nishagandhi – one that blooms in the night ©Sangeeta Venkatesh

I am blessed to be living in a community where the residents are plant-lovers and gardening enthusiasts. The sizes of the gardens vary but not the enthusiasm. A terrace garden is tended with as much care as a large garden. So, there was a lot of excitement last night, on the 7th of June, 2021 when all over the community, anyone who had the Cactus Epiphyllum oxypetalum, also known as the Dutchman’s-pipe cactus or Night-blooming Cereus, had the beautiful flowers blooming in the night at 10 pm. The Whatsapp group was abuzz with pictures being shared enthusiastically.

Note: (I am also recording the Vedic Calendar day in case there is any correlation – and will check it next year- as it was Dwadasi, Krishna Paksha, in the month of Vaishakha).

These blooms are also known as Orchid cactus and their uniqueness is in the fact that they bloom at night. The reason is that these plants are predominantly pollinated by bats and large moths. They have large white star-like flowers that help their pollinators to locate the blossoms by moon or star light. Many also have a lovely fragrance. These pristine, pure white flowers, are the size of a quarter-plate or even bigger, and the buds that are ready to bloom open as soon as the sun goes down and stay open all night, closing in the morning.  Despite being a terrestrial plant, they are epiphytic, which means that they need big trees and their protective bark to grow strong.

It is hard to believe that these flowers belong to the family of Cacti. Epiphyllum oxypetalum is native to Mexico and Central America. It can be found cultivated and naturalized in Venezuela, Brazil, Galapagos Islands, the Caribbean, India and China. The other names for flowers are Queen of the Night and Flower from the Moon. Since the plant is not indigenous to India, you rarely find pollinators and hence fruit formation is very rare or not at all. However, the plant can be propagated through cuttings. The plant needs 3-4 hours of sunlight though not directly.

In India, in recent times the name Brahma Kamal has got stuck with this plant, which is a misnomer as the ‘real’ Brahma Kamal is Saussurea obvallata, (Family: Asteraceae) which grows in the Himalayas. Epiphyllum oxypetalum, on the contrary, belongs to the family Cactaceae. The local name is ‘Nishagandhi’ and elsewhere it is also known as the Bethlehem Lily, as the centre of the flower looks like a cradle with a star. It was in 1586, that the French physician and botanist Jacques Daléchamps described this plant in his Historia Generalis Plantarum.

In Sri Lanka, these flowers are called Kadupul and supposed to be associated with the Nagas (mythical semidivine beings, half-human and half-cobra.). It is said to be a flower descended the from heavens, and when it blooms, it is believed that Nagas come on Earth from their heavenly abodes to pay homage to Lord Buddha, who is meditating on the holy mountains of Sri Pada (Adam’s Peak). The blooming season of the flower coincides with the pilgrimage season of Sri Pada which lends belief to the story.

The indigenous peoples of America have used the night blooming cereus as a topical remedy for rheumatism and itchy rashes, as well as an internal herbal remedy for fever. Additionally it is believed to be a useful natural treatment to help normalize heart rhythm and strengthens contractile forcer worms, cystitis and fever. Several other tribes of Native Americans use the stem  to treat diabetes.

Nomenclature:

Orchid cactus, Jungle cactus, Night blooming cereus, Dutchman’s Pipe • Hindi: निशागन्धी Nishagandhi • Marathi: ब्रह्मकमल Brahma kamal • Urdu: गुले बकावली , Gul-e bakawali • Mizo: Bethlehempar

Pictures Courtesy: The Author and Sashi Rajamani

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3 thoughts on “The enigma of Epiphyllum oxypetalum/ Nishagandhi – one that blooms in the night ©Sangeeta Venkatesh

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