She’s been one of my best friends for 25 or 30 years. Neither of us is native to the Northwest. We are both transplants from other parts of the country. However, that’s as far as the similarities go. Unlike me, she comes alive at night, bold, gaudy and garish. Wears way too much perfume.
She is my Night-Blooming Cereus, a large, gangly desert cactus that has survived cool and damp Northwest living by settling into a corner of my glassed-in front porch that faces south. Also known as Queen of the Night, it is a floppy, nondescript cactus during the rest of the year in the desert. Native Americans of the Southwest used its large root as a nutritious food source.
In mid-summer however, the plant produces buds that blossom for only a single night–and only after dark. Then a heady, lily-like fragrance creeps through my house to announce that tonight is the night. Occasionally, when I’ve gotten up during the night, I catch the flower’s scent even with the door closed to the front porch. I know that if I don’t go out to admire it now, the blossoms will be hanging limp and finished by the time I get up in the morning.
This is no ordinary blossom. Pearly white, with just a tinge of pink, it opens like a lily, but with many long petals. It spreads into a huge, elegant blossom about the width of a dinner plate. Usually just a few blossoms open at a time, but recently six blossoms opened all at once on my plant. I had gotten up during a middle-of-the-night thunderstorm or I would have missed seeing them and snapping a photo. That’s probably all it will produce for this year. I don’t see any other buds forming.
A park in Tucson, Arizona actually hosts a “Bloom Night” when their plants blossom. They keep people alerted through a hotline, and then open the gates during the night of the bloom, sometimes several times a summer.
Similar species can be found in Asia, China and South America. Imagine the myths that have blossomed with this unusual cactus! My favorite is a Navajo legend that my friend Ann, who gave me the plant some 30 years ago, had heard and told me:
A couple had a beautiful daughter who they treasured. One day a raid from a warring tribe resulted in the capture of their beloved daughter. She was taken to the distant village where one of the warriors claimed her as his wife.
The mother, a strong and spiritual woman, was able to communicate with her daughter’s thoughts from the top of a high hill. She was assured her daughter was doing well and was healthy.
One day, however, the mother was unable to reach her daughter. She sensed danger and set out by foot on the long, exhausting journey to the warriors’ village. She was guided on her way by the animals. Under their cover she was able to sneak into the village where she found her daughter very ill and dying. The daughter asked her mother to take her baby back with her so he would be raised in a peaceful village and not become a warrior.
As her daughter died that evening, the sad mother set out on the journey back to her village, carrying her grandson. It was a dark and frantic flight, for the father soon started out in pursuit of her. The animals hid her somewhat, but the pursuing warriors had horses and traveled much faster than she. Finally she could go no further. Dehydrated, exhausted, she knew she was dying. She called out to the eagle for help. The eagle spirit came down and asked what she needed. She asked him to take the baby back to her village. He agreed and then also granted her one more wish for herself. She said she would like to be beautiful just once. She died there in the night, and as the warriors came to the place where they expected to find her, all they found was the cactus. It blossoms only once a year, at night, and is the most beautiful cactus in the desert.