An Extraordinary Plant Through the Lens of Migration, Ritual and Memory by Daryl Stenvoll-Wells
Published on 21st February 2021
The turmoil of recent months has been difficult, but there have been a few silver linings. Each passing month of the pandemic places a renewed emphasis on daily ritual, with increased attention to memory. As autumn segued to winter, a regular splurge on plants and flowers became less of an indulgence and more of a survival mechanism. Every week, I place a few blooms next to an old photograph of my grandmother in the windowsill. She passed away eight years ago, at 103. Her story, like so many others, is bound to the natural world and to plant-based rituals passed through generations.
Memory and migration
My grandmother migrated from Macon, Georgia to Washington, DC in the early years of the Depression. My memories of her are from decades later, after she moved to Los Angeles to join my parents, who had made a cross-country migration of their own. She lived in various apartments around south central L.A., far from the fecund vegetation of her home state. But no matter where she moved, she always found a small patch of dirt in which to grow fresh greens: mustard, collard, turnip. This habit was a window into her southern roots.
Just as the UK’s lockdown began, I received a copy of Isabel Wilkerson’s excellent history, The Warmth of Other Suns, which recounts of America’s great migration: the epic journey of African-Americans from the post-slavery south to urban centres in the north and west, a move that forever changed the entire country. Wilkerson’s family, like mine, were transplants from Georgia to the nation’s capital.
A number of these tales of uprooted lives sounded familiar, remembrances of Wilkerson’s interview subjects from Louisiana, Georgia and Florida echoing stories passed down through my own family. They regularly lamented the loss of connection with the natural world that came with transplantation from their southern homes: the taste of freshly picked pecans; the wet, humid summers; the lush moss dripping from trees—all seemed impossibly calm and beautiful held up against the asphalt roads and concrete buildings of the north.
I was riveted by the chapter entitled ‘The Things They Left Behind’, in which Wilkerson relates the story of her grandmother’s yearly ritual revolving around a special plant in her Georgia garden, the night-blooming cereus:
Once a year on a midsummer night that could not be foretold, a curious plant called the night-blooming cereus would decide to undrape its petals…“My night-blooming cereus is going to open tonight,” she told them.[The neighbours] would arrive at my grandmother’s front porch around midnight.They rocked in the porch swing and waited…The opening took hours. Sometime around three in the morning, the white petals began to open, and the women set down their sweet tea to crane their necks over the blossom. They inhaled its sugary scent and tried to find the baby Jesus in the cradle in the folds.
Wilkerson’s description of this late-night ritual made me wonder if my grandmother ever witnessed this phenomenon; I wanted to know more about this plant that bloomed only once a year, and in such a dramatic fashion. Searching for more tales of southern rituals around the plant, I learned its appearance is frequently imbued with religious significance.
Walter Reeves, a blogger who goes by ‘The Georgia Gardener’, posts the following inquiries:
‘My neighbour has a plant she calls a night-blooming cereus. We stayed up until 1:00 a.m. one night watching the flower open, almost like waiting for a new baby to be born. It has the most heavenly scent.’‘I have a 6th generation flower that I would like more information about. My grandmother always called this flower ‘Christ in the manger’. The bloom takes several hours to fully open and is in full bloom around 1:00–2:00 AM. The bloom withers away and is usually hanging at dawn.’
It appears there are a number of species referred to as the ‘Night-Blooming’ or ‘Night-Blowing’ cereus. While it is likely that the plant Wilkerson’s grandmother tended is most likely an Epiphylum oxypetalum, the plant Linnæus dubbed Cactus grandifloras is now called Selenicereus grandifloras. Both belong to the subfamily cactoideae; both species originate in Latin America and the Caribbean. Their respective names refer to their nocturnal blossoming in alignment with the lunar cycle; the Latin name of Selenicereus originated with the Greek word for moon (selene), while the Epiphylum species is also known as the ‘queen of the night’.
Naked, luminous and complicated
These elusive flowers seem to have inspired wonder in artists for centuries. A stunning image of Selenicereus grandiflora appears as ‘The Night-Blowing Cereus’ in Robert Thornton’s TheTemple of Flora (1799–1807). This is an extraordinary example of botanical art of its time, in contrast to other illustrations of the same species. In the 2017 exhibition Dark Imaginings: Gothic Tales of Wonder (University of Melbourne), co-curator Susan Thomas describes the remarkable departures of the Temple of Flora print:
In the Temple of Flora the Night Cereus has been positioned in the foreground of the illustration to emphasise its size, and the seductive but slightly hostile flower is made to appear proportionally larger and more monstrous—at its most vibrant and sensuous in the shadowy light. The spectral bloom seems partially ensnared by its own serpent-like spiky stem and an entanglement of ivy and oak branches, the latter associated with dark forests and entrapment, and the tree with the ancient gods of thunder and lightning. These gothic overtones can be contrasted with the realism of a mid-century mezzotint of the same plant made by Johann Jakob Haid (1704–1767), after the original painting by botanical artist Georg Dionysius Ehret (1708–1770).
In the ominous background a dilapidated church can be seen, with a clock reading just past midnight, and moonlight ripples on a body of water in the middle ground. It is difficult to imagine succeeding in Thornton’s aim of capturing the ‘essence’ of the flower without such a theatrical setting.
The cereus appears in literature in much the same fashion. In 1791, Erasmus Darwin featured the cereus in the fourth canto of his poem The Botanic Garden:
Refulgent Cerea!—at the dusky hour
She seeks with pensive step the mountain-bower,
Bright as the blush of rising morn, and warms
The dull cold eye of Midnight with her charms…
Centuries later, the southern American writer Eudora Welty (1909–2001) became one of the founding members of the Night-Blooming Cereus Club in Jackson, Mississippi. In The Golden Apples she calls it a ‘naked, luminous, complicated flower’; legendary parties were thrown in her garden from dusk to dawn to celebrate its opening. She lamented, however, that by morning the withered bloom would look ‘like a wrung chicken’s neck’.
Queen of the Night
The International Organization for Migration asserted in their 2010 World Migration Report that 214 million people do not live in their country of origin; approximately 3% of the world’s population. So botanical links—be it for food, medicine or, in the case of cereus, spectacle, community, scent and memory—can help to form significant foundations, and even strengthen familial and community ties. In 2017 a Brooklyn writer tweeted an account between himself and a stranger one late, rainy night. The stranger invited the passer-by ‘to see a beautiful flower’—a night-blooming cereus—as this fellow New Yorker simply wanted to share the rare event with someone in the middle of a lonely megacity. It was, the writer noted: ‘...so delicate. It was the finest thing I have ever smelled.’
The Chinese use dried cereus flowers as an ingredient in Cantonese slow-simmered soup. As my family bundles up for winter, perhaps I’ll try to track down some dried cereus blossoms and make them a warming soup. Invoking the spirit of my grandmother’s plant rituals, and in recognition of the cross-cultural creativity this plant awakens, I’ll have to experience its essence first hand.
By Daryl Stenvoll-Wells
Darwin, E. 1791. The Botanic Garden. Canton IV.
de Medeiros, P. M., et al. 2012. ‘The use of medicinal plants by migrant people: adaptation, maintenance, and replacement.’ Evidence-based complementary and alternative medicine: eCAM (2012): 807452
Wilkerson, I. 2010. The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration. Random House
This article was originally published in Pulse, issue 47 Dec 2020.