The Asian Myth of the Queen of the Night Cactus

I couldn’t resist buying this little Easter cactus. I’ve never seen blooms this color on these plants. Aren’t the flowers pretty?

I’ve got a thing about Easter and Christmas cacti because they remind me of a very special plant in Asia. It’s the “tan hua” or “keng hua” (in Hokkien, a southern Chinese dialect). The plant is a night-blooming cereus (epiphyllum oxypetalum) also known as Dutchman’s Pipe or Queen of the Night.

You may have seen a reference to the plant in Kevin Kwan’s book, Crazy Rich Asians, or the movie. The main character’s future in-laws throw a party to celebrate the blooming of their tan hua.

Epiphyllum Oxypetalum

The tan hua has blossoms that can grow up to 6 inches across. The white flowers have a very heady scent (the better to attract moths and other pollinators). The flowers bloom only at night, and they last just for that night.

The plant is special not only because its flowers are so beautiful. Some people believe your household will have good luck and prosperity if you actually witness one of your tan hua flowers blooming.

A mother of a good friend grew several of the cacti in pots. When they were about to bloom, she would bring the pots into the house and stay up all night in the hope of seeing one of the blossoms open.

In Crazy Rich Asians, a character remarks that the tan hua blooms very rarely. I don’t know about that. My brother has a tan hua on his balcony that blooms all the time. There also was a house in Singapore I frequently passed that had tan hua growing against a brick wall. The plants’ flowers covered the wall at night. On a hot night, the blooms gave off such a strong fragrance you could smell it even while driving by with the windows rolled up.


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