Businesswoman with Queen of the Night plant to sell pictures of rare nighttime blooms

Local business owners Eva Zalewski and Robert Vitto didn’t know what they’d stumbled across.

The partners, also a couple outside the professional world, were running an orchid-growing company in 1999 when they bought out another dealer’s entire stock of exotic plants.

Among the inventory sat a peculiar plant with lush foliage, but no flowers. And that’s how it stayed for the better part of decade, until 2008, when the plant yielded a single giant, cream-colored blossom.

“It was a complete surprise. We had no idea it could bloom,” Zalewski said. “We just all of a sudden saw two buds. One fell off, but the one that opened was just breathtaking. It was an amazing experience. It showed maybe between 8 (p.m.) and midnight, and it was closed by the morning.”

What Zalewski and Vitto had happened upon was epiphyllum oxypetalum, sometimes called night-blooming cereus, or — most fitting for Las Vegas, said Zalewski — Queen of the Night. True to the couple’s experience, the plant blossoms only occasionally, always at night and for just a few hours.

So Zalewski began brainstorming, planning for the Queen of the Night’s next appearance. The idea? To sell large photos of the flowers inside Unseen World, a Fashion Show gallery that specializes in museum-quality quartz, agate slices, minerals and fossils for display inside homes and businesses. Zalewski designs and sells stone jewelry at Unseen World, and she thought lining the gallery’s walls with pictures of the Queen of the Night’s flowers would complement the natural beauties on the showroom floor.

But disappointment followed: After its debut in 2008, the plant failed to flower in 2009.

“The Queen of the Night can be capricious,” Zalewski said.

She and Vitto continued to do what they could to coax the plant, keeping it in their greenhouse, cutting it back periodically and carefully avoiding over-watering it. Mostly, though, the partners simply stayed patient.

“When you see something so beautiful and you know you have a chance to experience it again, it becomes a challenge,” Zalewski said.

Finally: success. Two years after it first flourished, the Queen of the Night gave forth an even greater abundance, with nearly 10 buds that opened nightly, one after the other, between Dec. 11 and Dec. 21.

This time, Zalewski was ready. She’d retained and had on standby Jim Briare, a local photographer who works as a creative manager for one of the city’s biggest resort operators.

“It was almost like a vigil, just waiting, like for the birth of a child,” Briare said. “She’d call me and tell me she’d know by 8:30 or 9 whether it would bloom that night. One night, I had a party to go to, and I had all my equipment with me, kind of how expectant parents have their little hospital bag ready to go.”

When he got the call, Briare rushed to meet Zalewski at the greenhouse, where he took hundreds of shots over several hours. He returned the next night, experimenting with different angles and lighting. In some of the shots, the flowers almost resemble underwater creatures, he said.

“One of the most fascinating things about photos is that you’re capturing historic moments,” Briare said. “When Eva called me and talked about the flower, and how rare its short-lived bloom is, it immediately struck a chord with me that this would be a historic moment that I would love to capture. It’s kind of a cliché to say every picture has a story, but in this case, I think it’s really true.”

Zalewski said she expects to have photos ready for Unseen World by Valentine’s Day. She’s also mulling the possibility of selling cuttings of the plant to clients who purchase pictures from the gallery.

Unseen World owner Mark Erickson said he must see the photos before he can size or price them, but he said copies for sale would probably measure at least 24 inches by 32 inches, or 30 inches by 40 inches.

The idea of selling pictures of the flower appealed to Erickson, who said his gallery has survived the recession by focusing on one-of-a-kind pieces.

“These flowers are unusual, and it’s very unusual to grow them in the desert,” said Erickson, whose store houses items priced from $6 to $30,000. “And we’re all about beauty and the unusual.”

Zalewski’s one regret? Vitto wasn’t here to see the flowers bloom, and he won’t view their pictures gracing the walls inside Unseen World. He passed away in May of cancer at 74.

Staying above water through the loss of her partner, and amid the sustained economic downturn, hasn’t been easy for Zalewski. The retail orchid business is no more, but she’s continued to design jewelry, including her Slice of the Desert line that sells through the visitors’ center at Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area. She also works several days during the week as an aesthetician at Allure Salon on East Flamingo Avenue.

Through it all, the Queen of the Night has renewed her own passion for living.

“These flowers give me the continuation of life,” Zalewski said. “There is the sadness that Bob is gone, but the flowers are still blooming and there is so much beauty in the world. We just need to keep our eyes open to capture it.”

Contact reporter Jennifer Robison at or 702-380-4512.

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