I was digesting a Father's Day plate of freshly grated hash browns on my way to work when I realized that not only was today Father's Day, it was also the first official day of summer. Plus, it was likely to be the first official 100 degree day that we've had this June. More often than not, we would have been laboring under the burden of three digits for a month or more by now, but this year, June has been unreal with temperatures staying in the hard-to-complain-about 90's. When you add all three of these coincident dates together, it's really kind of bizarre: how often does a celestial, a terrestrial, and a familial event happen on the same day?
As I drove, it occurred to me that maybe this was a sign that there was order to the universe after all; that I wasn't just an insignificant speck on the windshield; that I was part of billions of other specks on millions of other windshields; and that we would be all be cleansed by the great wiper of life, only to begin a new cycle in balance and harmony. In almost the same instant, a wasp hit my windshield at 60 mph and disintegrated, leaving a quarter-size dollop of translucent body fluid that quickly flattened against the glass. The wasp's useless carcass then rolled over a few times and was snatched away by the wind. It was at this moment that I realized that today was shaping up to be something special.
My newfound optimism was shattered later that morning when groundskeeper Jeff Payne asked me matter-of-factly, "Did you know that you missed the Peniocereus blooming?"
"Actually, no," I answered. No one had called, or twittered, or texted, or emailed, and even if they had, I was camping and out of cell phone and internet range. The flowering of Peniocereus greggii is a dramatic, once a year, not-to-be-missed event, and I had blown my chance with an ill-timed weekend getaway.
Peniocereus greggii, also known as "queen of the night" or more generically, "night blooming cereus," is an elongated, spindly cactus with a number of representatives in the Arboretum's collections, particularly in the Cactus and Succulent Garden and the Demonstration Garden. It is also a common native plant in the surrounding desert, usually growing under foothill paloverdes, ironwoods, and mesquites, but can also be found growing through dense shrubs like creosote and jojoba. Its overall appearance is unbalanced with gangly, angular stems that are barely the thickness of a breakfast sausage. The stems have a muted, dull green color that serves as excellent camouflage, making them easy to miss, especially in low light. The stem diameter at the very base of the plant is nearly the same as the diameter of the stems two or three above the ground, giving the plant the look that the slightest wind could bring the poor thing crashing down at any moment.
When it blooms, the plant's unstable look is magnified several fold by huge, white flowers that are 7 or 8 times the diameter of the stems. The color of the flowers is the purest of white, unblemished, unstained, perfect. It's as if the flowers were carefully painted in a heavenly clean room, hovered over by angels with wings shrink wrapped in cellophane lest an untimely molt might despoil their creation. Each individual petal is tipped with a thread-like point that curves upward, surrounding a cluster of stamens that share the same ethereal whiteness.
If you want to be a true blue "bloom gazer," you can pull an all nighter and watch the flowers bloom continuously from roughly 7:30 in the evening to about 9am in the morning. For those of you that insist on 8 hours of sleep, that still leaves a potential 5 and a half hours of face time. The rest of us have to settle for seeing the photographs taken by people with better planning skills --like Jeff Payne-- who captured most of the images that are included here.
Jessie Byrd is another queen of the night fancier and each year she holds a bloom gazing party at her house in Tucson. She serves mugs of beer, explains to her guests that the meaning of the word "penio"in Peniocereus is actually Latin for "tail" (definitely not what most of them had been thinking), and then enlists her well-lubed guests to help hand pollinate the flowers with paint brushes. The hand pollination helps out the sphinx moth which is the plant's natural pollinator, and assures better seed production.
This is a good time to plant Peniocereus greggii. Jeff and Arboretum groundskeeper Becky Noth laid out four one gallon plants today in pre-dug holes. All locations were under several different species of "nurse" trees and were new additions to the other night blooming plants that have been planted as part of the Arboretum's new Night Blooming garden.
I think that it's fair to add "botanical" to the celestial, terrestrial, and familial celebrations for the 21st of June, but don't dismay that you missed your last chance to see Peniocereus bloom. I have notes from 2000 that showed several of our plants at the Arboretum blooming on June 26 and Jessie Byrd's bloomed at the beginning of June this year in Tucson. This means that there is some wiggle room on the calendar, and if you're lucky, you still might get the chance this year to see one bloom.
So grab your sleeping bag and a six pack, and take in one of the great spectacles of life in June in the Sonoran desert.