Cereus Cactus “Queen Of The Night”
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I’m returning to posting images and commentary about my beloved Sonoran Desert. When I left for Alaska at the beginning of July we were still in the grip of an epic heat wave. Daytime temperatures were bumping up against 110 with regularity and we hadn’t experienced any meaningful rain since February. There were wildfires, some quite large, burning in the hills and mountains near Tucson.
All of that changed suddenly with the advent of our monsoon around the end of the first week in July. Since then temperatures have moderated and we’ve received lots of rain courtesy of dozens of thunderstorms that have pounded the area. Some communities have already received as much rainfall this monsoon as they receive in a typical monsoon season and we still have seven or eight weeks to go before it’s over.
Many of the living things in the Sonoran Desert structure their lives around the rains. Our summer rains are a time for growth, for breeding, and for renewal of life cycles. Over the next few weeks I’ll chronicle that to the best of my ability.
One life form that seems to time its rhythms to the monsoon is the Cereus Cactus known colloquially as “Queen of the Night.” This is truly an amazing plant. For almost its entire existence it is a brown, unassuming cactus that typically grows in the shadow of larger plants like mesquite. It resembles a bundle of dead sticks and is so mundane as to be almost invisible. But, on one night each year, typically after the start of the monsoon, it blooms — and it undergoes an astonishing, almost miraculous, transformation that lasts just a few hours. The Queen of the Night blooms in total darkness and its huge ivory colored flowers attract nighttime pollinators — bats and moths. Those flowers wilt with the rising of the sun and the plant resumes its stick-like form for a full year.
I was lucky enough to witness this phenomenon a week or so ago along with a friend, Rene Clark. We were taking a nighttime walk in Sabino Canyon, searching for subjects to photograph, when we happened upon a Queen of the Night in bloom.
Its appearance was stunning. We counted ten massive blooms on this plant. It appeared to glow in the beams of our flashlights. I can say honestly that I’ve never seen a display of blooms that was quite so impressive.
It was our great good fortune to have witnessed this extraordinarily rare event. In a way, it sort of encapsulates why I love the desert so much. It is the capacity for surprise and for sudden revelations of the unusual or beautiful that make this area such a wonderful place in which to live.
Images made with a Canon 5DS-R, 180mm f3.5 L Macro Lens assisted by Canon 600EX-RT Speedlite, M setting, ISO 160, synched at 1/160. First image shot at f9, second, at f14.