Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Annual flowering of the Tan Hua, or Bunga Bakawali

More accurately, it is an Epiphyllum oxypetallum, jungle-dwelling cacti that live on tree branches and rocky outcrops far above the forest floor.

This cactus was started from a cutting, given to me by a friend. Her mother brought it to the US from Hong Kong when she emigrated. The only name that she knew was "Chinese cactus", although in reality, it's not Chinese. They originate in Mexico, central America, and Brazil. The exact origin is uncertain. They have naturalized in South Asia and Southeast Asia. This species blooms once annually. The flowers open once, during the night, then whither in the early morning and die. Their extravagant, sensual appearance, and ephemeral character, are symbolic of how beautiful, and brief, life can be.

They are grown in southern China, where they are known as Tuan Hua. Here is an article about a neighborhood in Taipei, gathering to watch one open. There it is known as "Tan Hua Yi Xian" (A Flower That Vanishes as Soon as It Appears)

I've brought it inside each winter, and leave in on the North side of the house each summer. Last year it had only 2 blossoms. The year before, it hnad a fungal infection and most of it died. This Spring I transferred it to a larger pot. The growth medium is Miracle Grow potting soil. It's growing nicely. Not a compact plant, it takes a lot of room. Fortunately, we have the space. It's easy to grow from cuttings. One small section broke off this summer. I kept walking past it thinking, "Maybe I should pot that up". Finally, feeling sorry for it after 2 or 3 weeks, I did. After 3 weeks, that section is now growing and has added a new leaf-pad, larger than the original cutting.

In South Asia and Malasia this flower is known as the Bunga Bakawali. The blossom is supposedly controlled by a night spirit, but this must be a fairly obscure legend, I could only find hints of it in a google search. I a reader of this blog knows more, I would love to hear the story.

For members of the diaspora from Southern China and Southeast Asia, the Bunga Bakawali can be a living reminder of their origin. "It was when she said that I understood everything. This flower reminded her of that distant childhood she once had, the innocent little child she once was, and most importantly, the people she truly misses, her mother, her sisters"

At 5pm, the "Dutchman's pipe" stage. The buds are starting to swell.

At 830pm. Even at this stage, they are quite beautiful.

Fully open at 10pm. This year the fragrance fills the night sky. It's raining, but this plant is in a sheltered location away from the rain.

Also at 10pm. This doesn't quite match the legend of opening exactly at midnight, but it will be open then as well. It may be confused by the time zone, of course.

8am. Having had their moment in the night, the blossoms close again. Three did not open last night, so will be expected to open tonight. That doesn't quite match the one-night-per-year legend either, but close enough.


  1. Hi, nice pics. Here is a link to some of the stories related to the Bakawali legend. Cheers

    1. What is the link? I am so curious about the legend.

    2. Apparently the website to the link is no longer there. There is some info on wikipedia.

  2. Thank you so much for the comments!

  3. thanks for the lovely article about Bunga Bakawali. Me as a Malay myself, never had the chance to see it in real. i hope i will be able to witness it bloom and given the pleasure of sniffing in the fragrance it exudes. in the future, perhaps. :-)

  4. Thanks for the beautiful pictures and detail description. My dad used to grow Tan Hua in shanghai. Every year we had a special night watching it bloom and slept in the room filled with its frangance. We heard recipt using flower for tea and cook with meat in Canton area. We watched the white one bloom at night, and the red one bloom during the day. I miss it so much now that I am in maryland. Is there any place I can buy Tan Hua? Or perhaps I can get a leaf from you?

  5. Shanghaiwind, if you email me your address I will mail you some starts. No charge, I just hope you are able to grow it and pass starts on to other people.

  6. Anonymous10:39 PM

    I just read about this plant. Would you happen to have any extra cuttings to spare. I like to try growing unusual plants.

  7. Anonymous4:26 AM

    I have one plant and I am wondering if it should put in a larger pot. I have it in the same pot for 3 years and it is gettin big. But some plants like to be in a small pot and some prefer a bigger one. I don't know for this one.

  8. I think the bigger pot can be a good idea. Depends on how big the plant is. It can also be pruned back and the roots pruned, but doing so you may lose a year of bloom.

  9. Daniel
    That's a very lovely pot of bakawsli you have got. I had a white one but has since disappeared. I m now growing a pink bakawali. What differences are there between them?

  10. Thank you Tham!

    I don't know of any differences. The pink one sounds beautiful. I thought about adding one too.

    Last fall I pruned some branches from this white one. I stuck them in some potting soil and mostly left them alone, watering occasionally. They are now growing.

    Good luck with your flower. They are really nice.

  11. Anonymous8:26 PM

    can anyone please highlight mine bakawali is-the leave are hard and stiff . it has been too long since she open her petals. i miss that especially when there are 5 - 6 nos opening up at midnite graciously.
    is it too much sun or water or too much plant manual.

  12. I don't know why your's isn't blooming.