Hosting parties and gatherings to celebrate the debut of these unlikely belles of darkness is a long-held tradition. In 1937, for example, a Rhode Island newspaper described a crowd that gathered one evening at the estate of a wealthy family known for their elaborate parties.
The night-blooming cereus is native to the deserts and subtropics of the Southwest United States, the Antilles and Central and South America. The plants vary in form from species to species; without blooms, some look like gnarled nests of bare sticks or green, flat-leaved cactus-orchid hybrids.
Some grow in the ground, and others in trees, like air plants. One plant, depending on its size, may have dozens of blossoms — and they typically bloom en masse.
At least one species, easily grown from clippings, has become a fairly common houseplant.
“It’s kind of big and gangly and awkward,” said Marc Hachadourian, who directs the Nolen Greenhouses at The New York Botanical Garden. “But the lure of those blooms is worth it.” It’s a good way to impress friends.
Today, informal gatherings with food, cocktails or tea to welcome the big, blooming guests of honor form over texts from neighbors, crowdsourced maps, Facebook status updates, old-fashioned invites and the occasional voice in the dark.
Jamison Teale, a member of The Queen of the Night Society, a Facebook page of about half a dozen residents of Hudson, N.Y., who all have their own plants, has shared blooms with friends on his porch in the past and may have blooms in the coming days.
Sometimes there’s more hoopla. Staff at Tohono Chul, a botanical garden in the Sonoran Desert of Arizona, for instance, spend months monitoring their 300 mostly native night-blooming cereus plants.
On the night when most blooms are expected (this year it was in July), the gardens stay open late, serving tacos, ice cream, beer and wine.
“I think it’s really just an excuse to be out in the desert after dark to see what many people see as this absolutely magical flower,” said Jo Falls, an educator at the gardens.
The blooms are summoned not by magic, but temperature, humidity or rainfall, with most species blooming at rainy times in the summer. Most appear to follow a lunar cycle, with more buds emerging on or around a full moon.
In the moonlight, their white petals and sweet aroma attract nocturnal pollinators with which some of the plants have co-evolved.
A hummingbird-esque Hawk moth arrives to pollinate Peniocereus greggii, the twiggy desert cactus, and bats typically pollinate other species. The nighttime blooms reduce competition for pollinators by other plants, allowing the cactuses to bear more fruit.
In some places, the Queen of the Night is still coming. You can prepare for her arrival by keeping an eye on buds, which develop over one to four weeks until they swell up and turn away from the direction they once faced.
The bloom will arrive sometime between sunset and midnight. Over one to three hours, the petals unfold, and a thick perfume resembling magnolia or gardenia permeates the air.
If you take your eyes off the Queen of the Night, she will slip away with the moon.
When Mr. Randall returned the next morning, the vibrant blossom had vanished. But The Queen of the Night’s essence remained, and it will continue to be shared from strangers’ gardens, the Twitter accounts of random passers-by, and the many others who get to experience random beauty one lucky night a year.
Continue reading the main story