Queen of the Night
Synonyms: Night-Blooming Cereus, Large-flowered cactus, sweet-scented cactus, vanilla cactus
Scientific Name: Selenicereus grandiflorus L.
Family: Cactaceae (cactus family)
Deserts and semi-desert regions of Mexico, the southern USA, Cuba and Jamaica.
The biogenic amines methyl and dimethyl tyramine, phenylethylamine and flavonoid glycosides.
Lovers of the opera will inevitably be reminded of Mozart’s Magic Flute when they hear the name queen of the night. However, the queen of the night referred to here is not a vengeful queen who can reach the highest notes but a cactus, night-blooming cereus, that scales rock faces and walls with the aid of aerial roots and clinging spines, sometimes also using other plants for support. If the aerial roots come in contact with soil they become real roots and enable the cactus to form new, independent plants. The spines, which grow along the edges of the thin, four- to eight-edged, snaking branches, are actually nothing more than modified leaves. With this trick the cacti reduce their surface and thus reduce the amount of water evaporating from the leaves, where water loss is greatest.
But the leaves are not the only parts greatly reduced in cacti. The side shoots, too, are no longer recognisable as such but are transformed into small, felt-like cushions that sit directly on the surface of the branches. From these cushions, called areoles, grow not only the spines but also large flowers with a diameter of 15 to 27 centimetres, which contrast strongly with the otherwise rather scrawny appearance of the queen of the night. On the outside the flowers are brownish-yellow, but towards the centre the colour changes from pale yellow to white. These flowers are true queens of the night. They not only look look very impressive, with their crown of thorn-shaped petals that surrounds them like a radiating halo, but they also make their entrance in the night, or more precisely for one single night, when the flower opens completely and exhales an enchanting vanilla fragrance. Drawn by the perfume, nocturnal bats visit the flower to drink the nectar, incidentally ensuring pollination at the same time. The pollinated flowers develop tomato-sized, red to yellowish coloured fruits which are edible to humans and also much enjoyed by the bats.
A tincture obtained from night-blooming cereus is beneficial in cases of functional cardiac dysrhythmia, angina and age-related heart weakness, and after a heart attack. Homeopathy also uses a preparation of night-blooming cereus known as cactus to combat digestive ailments with flatulence and cramp-like pain, as well as period pains.
The scientific name of our cactus is derived from the Greek selene = moon and the Latin cereus = wax taper, plus grandiflorus = large-flowered. Wax taper refers to the growth pattern of the stems, sections of which are perfectly straight, and also to their combustibility. American Indians dried them, dipped them in oil and used them as torches.
The indigenous peoples of America knew the night-blooming cereus as a topical remedy for rheumatism and itchy rashes and an internal remedy for worms, cystitis and fever. Christopher Columbus (1451-1506) brought this curative plant back to Europe from his voyages of discovery to Central America, and in 1586 the French physician and botanist Jacques Daléchamps (1523-1588) described it in his Historia Generalis Plantarum.
In Europe knowledge of the night-blooming cereus as a medicinal plant became more widespread from 1864 onwards, after Rocco Rubini (1805-1886), Italian physician and medical director of the homeopathic hospital Santa Maria della Cesarea near Naples, published the results of his research into the queen of the night in the British Journal of Homeopathy1. He discovered that a tincture obtained from the cactus had an antispasmodic effect on the coronary arteries and improved blood supply to the heart. In the 20th century the commercial interest in these properties was so great that the night-blooming cereus was at significant risk of being over-harvested. Fortunately, the Washington Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora of 3 March 1973 regulated trade with plants growing in the wild.
Because of its impressive, fragrant flowers, popular belief held that a broth of boiled queen of the night flowers would lend a woman a rich sensuality for one night.
The cactus societies of Austria, Germany and Switzerland declared the night-blooming cereus Cactus of the Year 2009.
The plant from another perspective
In the WALA medicinal herb garden the queen of the night occupies a sheltered space in the greenhouse. WALA plant laboratory staff process the young stems and flowers for WALA Medicines. When a flower opens it is quite an event.