Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Our Night-blooming Cereus

A friend gave it to us in a pot, a stalk about a yard tall, some tall leathery leaves. We set it in the pot on the ground next to a fence, so the awkwardly tall thing could lean against it without toppling over. We thought maybe it was dead, but then saw some new leaves appearing.  We were rather interested. The great botanical artist Margaret Mee, who specialized in painting the rare plants of the Amazon Basin, had painted a close relative. Both plants had in common that they only bloomed once during the season, and that bloom lasted only one day, or night rather, since as the name said, it was night blooming.

That plant in the Amazon had to time everything very carefully. It had to bloom on just the right day to send out its fragrance when the moth that pollinated it was present, and the moth drinking from its nectar had to get its pollen on its furry breast and take it to another plant blooming on just that night also. The connection missed by only a dozen hours, and the plant's whole season was wasted.

The painter had to be there too, or her season was wasted as well. She prepared carefully, with professional botanists (her paintings often went to the botanical museum) keeping an eye out to tell her when things were starting to move. She hired a fisherman to take her out at the appropriate moment. The plant bloomed hanging from trees over water, so she needed just the right boat with a flat top to its cabin that she could sit on while she did the painting, a boat big enough to carry all her equipment and with a suitable berth for her to sleep in while she waited for the moment. That was always the hardest part, getting the fisherman to believe she was really going all that way just to paint a flower that would only come out that one night, and the fisherman had to be reliable enough to get her there on time (she wouldn't pay till afterward, so he wouldn't get totally drunk and disappear before they went, but would have to wait until after when she gave him the money). The fishermen worried that she had some scam she was working, drug smuggling or something like that that would get them all in trouble. And once she convinced him she was legit and he realized that she was serious, then when they got out to that remote place, and got up late at night, with a beautiful moon and a beautiful fragrance from the flower, the fisherman suddenly grew amorous, which was why she also always carried a pistol in the pocket of her painting smock

We weren't sure we would get a flower from ours, but in fact we did get one that first season, and then it was over with. It had happened a bit too fast for us. So we really looked forward to it the next year.  Meantime the plant sat glumly through the winter in our storeroom waiting for it to be summer again.

The next summer we put it out again, and it perked up again. But it didn't produce a flower. Maybe it only flowers every other year, we speculated. Or maybe only once in its life like a century plant?

It went through another gloomy winter, forgotten in our messy storeroom. Summer came again (this summer), and when we decided it was warm enough, we put it out again leaned against the fence (it had hardly changed in size or appearance, only the leathery old leaves greened up a bit once it was out in the sun). Then from out of nowhere three little brown twiggy things appeared. Buds?

But just about that time, it was going to be our grandson's first birthday, and we decided this was too important to miss. Now, the long drive out to Arizona, and the long drive back, was beginning to wear on us, so this time we decided to fly out, and that decision also turned out to be important. We stayed out there for about ten days, then flew back. We got home after dark, slept the night away, wandered out into the yard the next morning, and found the three little brown twiggy things had grown to three enormous buds just on the point of popping open. In fact we thought it would open that night. If we had taken the car out to Arizona we would still have been on the road with another day to go on our return.

 We waited until about nine o'clock that evening and went out, but nothing seemed to have changed. Maybe this wasn't the night. We checked again at ten o'clock, and this time the flowers were opening before our eyes, and the fragrance was apparent from several feet away.

That was really fun and exciting, our once in the year midnight celebration. Then it was over with. The next day the flowers were hanging limply, like the wrinkled balloons the day after our grandson's  party. In a couple of months the pot would be back in the storeroom.