The Ephemeral Beauty of Night-Blooming Flowers

BY DAY, HYLOCEREUS undatus resists friendship. A climbing cactus native to Mexico and Central America but now thriving in regions tropical and temperate around the world, it can grow more than 30 feet tall, colonizing trees and rock walls with extended, fleshy stems, massed like the arms of an octopus. All year it sprawls, a spiked barricade — and then, one night, the flowers come. Starting around dusk (depending on where in the world you are, how warm the day, the ponderousness of clouds), the pale, waxy buds, which resemble elongated artichokes, start to open, the pink-tipped sepals peeling back millimeter by millimeter until, by midnight, the secret is told: the blossom announcing itself, so white it seems to glow, with skinny yellow streamers at its throat. Its life is a matter of hours; in the light of day, it retreats and shrivels, a ball gown turned to rags.

From a human perspective, this is parable. The American photographer Sally Mann deployed it as such in “Night Blooming Cereus,” a 1988 portrait of her daughter Jessie Mann, then age 7, posed with two bone white, half-wilted blossoms draped over her bare chest in an ominous bodice, the child’s feral freedom already giving way to the strictures and demands of womanhood. (The term “night-blooming cereus” encompasses a number of species of cactuses.) Nothing lasts. The pageantry of flowering that for many plants arcs over days and weeks in spring and summer — what we read as resurrection, the earth coming back to life after a hard winter — is for the night bloom compressed into a single wanton evening. All that is left to greet the waking is a twist of spent petals: You missed the party.

But this is a projection of our own sense of loss, for we are not the flowers’ chosen audience. By design, night bloomers are beacons, their moonlight-reflecting blossoms making a theater for moths and in turn their predators, bats, who do the necessary deed of collecting and scattering pollen to keep the plants alive. Nocturnal blooming is all strategy rather than poetry, purposefully putting on a show while other plants sleep, when there’s less competition for pollinators. We are just the unbidden suitors, cooling our heels, hoping for a glimpse of their glory. (Later, some species may bear hot pink dragon fruit with flaring green edges and creamy white flesh within: a consolation prize for humans.)

CreditCredit…Video by Linny Morris

OF COURSE, IT may be this very indifference that attracts us, makes us want to reject sleep and propriety and stay up all night (when all the most interesting things happen). During the hardscrabble years of the Great Depression, people held vigils for the coming of the flowers, taking out notices in newspapers to proclaim that blooming in their backyards was imminent, should anyone care to swing by after nightfall. The Southern writer Eudora Welty, then in her 20s, attended such gatherings in Jackson, Miss., and even started the Night-Blooming Cereus Club, with the motto “Don’t take it cereus. Life’s too mysterious” — keeping in mind how quickly the voluptuous flower dwindled into “a wrung chicken’s neck,” as one Jackson local put it.

Often the manifestation had the quality of a miracle: In “The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration” (2010), the writer Isabel Wilkerson recalls how, “once a year on a midsummer night that could not be foretold,” her grandmother would invite neighbors over to her porch in Rome, Ga., to sip sweet tea and eat ice cream until the cereus flowers yawned wide and everyone leaned in, hoping to see “the baby Jesus in the cradle in the folds.”

These days, at the Tohono Chul botanical garden in Tucson, Ariz., grounds staff monitor the nation’s largest private collection of Peniocereus greggii, another night-blooming cactus that is known as queen of the night, although it spends much of its life resembling nothing more than dead twigs. Once buds appear, they’re carefully measured until they’re swollen enough — when they hit 120 millimeters, the countdown begins — to proclaim bloom night, when the public is welcomed to wander low-lit trails and spy on the flowers-to-be. (Last year, because of the pandemic, the event was streamed online, and a single plant’s blooming was commemorated in a time-lapse video.)

The rarity and difficulty of predicting the event — of catching the flowers in the act — can make witnessing it a mark of status, as in Kevin Kwan’s 2013 novel, “Crazy Rich Asians,” in which a Singaporean family of ungodly wealth amasses a crowd to pay homage to another night-blooming cereus species, known as tan hua in Chinese and part of the idiomatic term tan hua yi xian: “fleeting glory,” or “a flash in the pan.” (In China, after wilting, such flowers are dried and added to soup, and reportedly offer detoxifying benefits.) But the plant, and its dinner-plate-size flower, couldn’t care less about the glamorous guests and their desire for spectacle; it follows no timetable and deigns to open only at the time of its choosing. “It has its own agenda,” says the floral designer Ren MacDonald-Balasia of Renko, who splits her time between Honolulu and Los Angeles. “It’s nature taking its power back.” When MacDonald-Balasia was growing up on Oahu, her grandmother would beckon her over just before the flowers were ready to reveal themselves: “C’mon, let’s go outside.” “It was a quiet, secret thing,” says MacDonald-Balasia.

Not all night-loving flowers have such brief lives. Some, like tuberose and gardenia, open in the day but grow more potent and explicit after sundown, exuding a heavy-lidded fragrance of sweetness teetering on decay. This is in part the work of indole, an aromatic compound present in foul-smelling substances like coal tar and feces, which in trace amounts gives the most delicate of flowers an almost animal opulence. Other nocturnal blossoms deploy scents like siren calls: The creamy whorls of the moonflower vine hint at vanilla and sunscreen, while the heavy bells of brugmansia are franker and muskier in aura, verging on narcotic.

I still remember, as a teenager at college in New Jersey, the sudden loucheness of honeysuckle in the late spring dark, stopping me barefoot in the wet grass. It smelled of ripeness, of knowledge and all I’d never been told. “How can I rest?” the American poet Louise Glück once wrote of a night beset by the insistent exhalations of mock orange blossoms:

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