By RUSTY DENNEN

When it blooms it's spectacular, with an intensely fragrant white flower the size of a small dinner plate.

But unlike most flowers, this one unfurls in the dark and lasts only a few fleeting hours.

A night-blooming cereus opened in the wee hours Sunday at Gari Melchers Home and Studio at Belmont and was still in full bloom when staffers came in to work yesterday morning

"We were thrilled to see it," said Beate Jensen, Belmont's buildings and grounds preservation supervisor at the historic estate in Falmouth.

Since time was of the essence, Michelle Crow-Dolby, the education coordinator, took pictures and tweeted the news. Soon, visitors were stopping by for a quick look.

By mid-morning the commotion was over--the blossom had closed.

Belmont was the home of renowned American Impressionist artist Gari Melchers and his wife, Corinne, who deeded the property and its collections to the state in the 1940s. The museum and gallery is now administered by the University of Mary Washington and serves as a visitors center for Stafford County.

Archival records suggest Corinne Melchers had the tropical member of the cactus family in her collection, possibly on her sun porch on the south end of the house.

There was a night-blooming cereus at Belmont until the 1970s.

"It's easy to propagate [from cuttings], and she was a plant person," said Jensen, who wants visitors to understand more about life at Belmont when the Melcherses were there.

"That's why I decided to get one about a year ago from a nursery catalog."

Tropical plants were popular during the Victorian era, and the Melcherses spent time in the Caribbean, where cereuses grow.

In those days, "people would go to parties and see the [blossom] come out in the middle of the night," Jensen said.

"The fragrance is very sweet like a perfume and the flower is huge--I would say about 10 inches across."

Jensen kept the potted plant in her office all last winter. In the spring she put it outside on the porch, just as Corinne Melchers would have done. "You put your house plants out for the summer."

Also known as 'Queen of the Night,' there are two cereus varieties, according to the University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture.

"It is hard to imagine that such a common-looking plant could have such a stunning blossom. Odder yet, it only opens in the late evening, but it is worth losing a little sleep over," a division publication says.

Jensen says the plant, which has large, flat leaves and stands over 2 feet high, could produce another bud.

Next to the cereus is a blooming aloe. In the garden nearby, salvia is blooming along with some end-of-season roses.

With fall looming, "It's a sad time of year" in the garden, Jensen says. "That's why this is extra thrilling."

Gari Melchers Home and Studio at Belmont, umw.edu/gari_melchers/

Rusty Dennen: 540/374-5431

Load comments