Saturday, September 20, 2008

Night-blooming cereus

It's September again and the cereus are blooming.

(Photo by Ulf Eliasson, used by permission)

The road we take to come home from choir practice passes beside Punahou school campus, which is enclosed by a low wall of volcanic stone over which a riotous hedge of night-blooming cereus spills. The hedge is closing in on two hundred years old; it is said to have been planted in 1836. In the autobiography of Queen Lili'uokalani, she recalls making a trip to Punahou as a girl to see it in bloom. Night-blooming cereus looks like a large and somewhat disreputable Christmas cactus, sprouting fist-sized, artichoke-like buds. These open at night into baroque blossoms of white and pale green, spiky, sepaled and the size of a child's head, every foot or so along what must be half a mile of hedge. Being on a bicycle puts me at eye level with the flowers; I push my way up the hill past blossoming branches that jut out crazily over the sidewalk or spike headlong down the dark stone.

When I was in college, the custodian of my residential house was a guy named Gene. Gene was one of those intellectual eccentrics that all universities pull into their orbit, a banjo-playing tai chi instructor who made sculptures out of found materials in his spare time. Gene had a night-blooming cereus in a pot, carefully cozened through the Boston winters, and about once a year it would send out a bud. Word would fly around the dormitory and a group of students would always convene with folding chairs and thermoses of coffee to stay up all night and watch it bloom – a rare and delicate exotic. Who knew if it would bloom another year?

The Punahou cereus hedge has bloomed every night for three and a half weeks, every September for 172 years. I think it's a different variety than Gene had – Hylocereus rather than Selenicereus – but the whole thing seems emblematic of the distance between the two worlds.

1 comment:

Mokihana said...

Nani photo... I used to love driving by the night-blooming cereus by Punahou's one of the things I miss most about home!