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Only come out at night

Published May 17, 2002|Updated Sep. 3, 2005

If you were driving late at night down Bayshore Boulevard earlier this month, you might have beheld the wonder.

A column of ghostly white flowers, huge and shimmering in the moonlight, stretched toward the top of a date palm at Inman Avenue.

It is an event that bonds horticulturists and insomniacs:

The yearly flowering of the night blooming cereus.

An unassuming cactus vine by day, after dark it becomes a thing of beauty.

Eight-inch blooms spring fiercely out of fuzzy buds. One can actually see them move. The spectacular display lasts only a few hours. By morning, the remnants resemble the pinkish, drooping heads of dead flamingos.

The cactus, a desert native, was a popular exotic in south Florida during the early part of the 20th Century, and some old-time Floridians have fond memories of cereus parties, when the neighbors would come over with lawn chairs and the kids sit out in their pajamas, waiting for the dramatic bloom.

The cereus is still scattered in a few yards around South Tampa, usually creeping up trees, but it is in perpetual danger of being stomped out since it is so ugly most of the year.

"When we first moved here, we started tackling the yard," says Lyris Newman, who with her husband Eric moved into their Beach Park house 23 years ago. "I'm not a fan of cactus, so I started whacking at this huge thing with a machete, and the neighbors came running, yelling, "Wait till you see it bloom.' "

In the years since, The Newmans have relished the yearly flowering of their night blooming cereus, which creeps more than 20 feet up the trunk of a pine tree in their front yard. Some June nights, the vine will show as many as 100 flowers.

Lyris Newman says she has thought about having everyone over in their pajamas to watch, but hasn't had a cereus party yet. Instead, she lets a few interested neighbors know when it's about to happen and they come over with flashlights.

"The thing is, it starts to close when you shine a light on it, so you have to look at it, then turn the light off," she says.

Meanwhile, over on Davis Islands, Howard Shamblin's night blooming cereus will probably be blooming this weekend. It snakes up a tree in his Channel Drive front yard and is visible from the street.

Shamblin planted the vine in 1945 when his mother-in-law, Ann Marie Ruby, got him a cutting.

"I haven't touched it since then. I don't do anything to it," Shamblin says. "I just watch it every year."

Shamblin has discovered a trick to force a bloom when he's too tired to stay up late. He picks a bud that's ready to go, sticks it in water, and places it in the refrigerator.

"It's dark and cool in there, so it'll open," he says. "And they smell so nice, the whole fridge smells like vanilla."

If you'd like to watch a night blooming cereus open but don't like to venture out in your pajamas, go to www.bol.ucla.edu/rfovel l/cereus.html.

Up next:OBITUARIES
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