- Photo: Brian Gersten www.briangersten.com
Also known as Queen of the Night and Reina de la Noche
Most of us have taken a break from Sabino Canyon for the summer. We travel to higher elevations for cooler weather or maybe head north. The plants and animals in Sabino Canyon, however, continue with their lives. I’ve found that I can miss a lot of interesting events if I’m unwilling to endure the heat. Usually we have a respite with summer rains but this year they’ve been slow coming. Despite that, a few brave souls have ventured out to view one of our most beautiful blooming cactuses. With names like Queen of the Night and Reina de la Nocha, we must realize that the names will bear up to the spectacular display of the flowers. Large white, fragrant blossoms adorn a plant that for the most part of the year is almost unfindable.
The stems of this cactus are usually few and are most often found growing under trees or within brushy shrubs. They are virtually undetectable from old dead branches under Mesquite trees. The plant has a large, starchy underground tuber that can weigh up to 40 pounds. Sometimes the stems are eaten by herbivores but will grow back from the root.
The Desert Night-blooming Cereus (Peniocereus greggii) is indeed a cactus. According to “A Natural History of the Sonoran Desert” textbook, plants in the cactus family (Cactaceae) are defined by a distinctive flower pattern. Flowers must have many tepals (combined sepals and petals) that intergrade with one another, many stamens (usually hundreds), and several stigma lobes (rarely only three). If a plant lacks such a flower, then it is not a Cactus. Keep this in mind when visitors point out agaves and Ocotillos as cactus. Those succulent plants are also spiny but lack the flower structure which defines cactus. Remember, all cacti are succulents, but not all succulents are cacti.
The plants in each Peniocereus greggii population usually bloom synchronously at night in the summer. One plant near Bear Canyon Trail and Esperero had 14 blooms open this year. I’ve seen them bloom as early as June, and this year it seems like mid-July was the appointed time for Her Majesty to make a showing. The large white blooms, about 3 inches across are followed by oval shaped fruit which turns bright red. The fruits are attractive to birds and other critters who will help to spread the seeds. The flowers are not self-fertile and are cross pollinated by hawk moths. The moths fly long distances between plants and are rewarded with nectar for their efforts.
So, while it’s a little late to see the flowers (in May), the fruits are a good find. Just look for brilliant red tucked into some shrubs and you’ll find the rest of the plant too. You might have to get there ahead of the critters to find the fruits, they are quite delectable, but do leave them for the residents.
Etymology of the name: Peniocereus: From the Greek pene (thread) and cereus (cactus), referring to the slender stems. Greggii: Named for Josiah Gregg, a 19th century frontier trader and author