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Photo: Susan Bryant
The Night-Blooming Cereus blooms at night once a year. Be there when it happens.

In the same way that the sun shines on the keyhole to Smaug’s lair only once a generation — or through Suzanne’s fence and onto the stonewall only twice a year — the lovely Night-Blooming Cereus has its own moment in time, and it’s worth planning your life around it.

Margaret Renkl writes at the New York Times, “For decades, my grandmother was the caretaker of a gangly, disorganized houseplant with nothing, so far as I could see, to recommend it. The plant was ugly. … It was less a plant than something out of a nightmare. As a little girl, I thought it might bite me.

“When the evenings began to cool in early autumn, my grandmother would bring the plant indoors, set it on a table next to the fireplace, and wait hopefully for it to bloom. She called it her ‘night-blooming series.’

“It was years before I understood that the scary plant in my grandparents’ house was actually a night-blooming cereus, a catchall term for several varieties of cactus that bloom at night — often for only one night each year. That’s if it blooms at all: My grandmother’s ‘series’ apparently bloomed only once in all the decades she had it. There are just two pictures of it in full flower, and they were taken on the same night sometime during the 1960s. …

“My cutting came from my brother and sister-in-law’s plant, a proven bloomer, but it has never formed a single bud under my care.

“[In September], my brother texted a photo of the bud he’d discovered on his plant. ‘It might bloom tonight!’ he wrote. ‘I looked in my garden journal, and it was fully open by 8 p.m. in 2014.’ … So I got in the car and drove straight to his house in Clarksville, more than 50 miles from here [Nashville], stopping only for gas. With a night-blooming cereus, the transformation from bud to blossom can take less than an hour. …

“I recognize the irony: There I was, driving through a parched landscape with a full tank of gas, on a pilgrimage to do nothing more than watch a flower bloom, while the hot winds from the 18-wheelers shook my whole car as they passed.

“I am only one generation removed from the farm, and I spent much of my childhood in the very world where my mother grew up, the same one where my grandmother grew up, and my great-grandmother before her, going back farther than anyone could remember. …

“Today only 2 percent of Americans live on farms or ranches, but we have not lost our need to be among green things. Which may explain why friends and neighbors were already hurrying to my brother and sister-in-law’s house by the time I got to Clarksville, and why we all gathered together in their living room to wait for the miraculous event to unfold. The plant’s single bud, which spanned the full length of my hand, was clearly in no hurry to open, pink filaments still tightly ribbing it from stem to tip an hour after we arrived.

‘It’s like counting contractions, waiting for a baby to be born,’ someone said.

“Then, finally, the bud began to open, at first just one tiny aperture at the very end. The pink filaments began to loosen and lift. As the aperture widened, a star-shaped structure unfolded within it — a white star inside a white flower — and the translucent petals unlayered and arrayed themselves around the star. The flower was nine inches across fully opened, and its perfume filled the whole room with sweetness. It was not a nightmare plant at all. It was the flower of dreams. It would be gone by morning, not to return for another year. If then. …

“That night-blooming cereus brought my grandmother back to me in her halo of white hair. It brought back, too, her plum tree, long since cut down, and the feeling of red dirt between my toes. In a time of great cultural dislocation and environmental despair, for an hour it made me remember what it feels like when the world is exactly as it must be, and I am exactly where I belong.”

More at the New York Times, here.

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