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.