Reina de la Noche
Cereus flowers glow on bloom night
As the evening turned into night, the thick air was still tinged with the familiar scent of creosote after the recent monsoon rains. Three people gathered together and carefully pointed flashlights into the dark desert brush, almost leaning into the short wire-meshed fencing that lined the pathway.
I didn't see anything.
"You can climb over this wall and get past the fence to get a closer look if you would like," said Marcia Ring, the marketing and communications manager of Tohono Chul Park.
Carefully avoiding some pointy desert vegetation, I found myself face to face with a thin grey gangly cactus. On top of the highest peaks of the cactus perched three beautiful white glowing blooms about the size of your palm.
"It's interesting how much they look like lily pad blooms isn't it," Ring said as she held back a branch of the Palo Verde tree shading the tall cactus.
The night-blooming cereus, Peniocereus greggii, also called the "Queen of the Night," is a magical sight and revered by those who live in the desert because the full bloom is only seen on one night, once a year.
In response to this plant's elusiveness, Tohono Chul Park, 7366 N. Paseo del Norte, sends out email notifications and posts updates on their website of the estimated bloom date.
Every year the park holds an annual "bloom night" where people can come and enjoy the desert night and fragrant blossoms. This year, the flowers began to bloom Wednesday night. More flowers are expected to open Thursday night at the park, which said it is home to the nation's largest collection of the plants.
Surprisingly, there were still a number of visitors wandering the park with their cameras and water bottles in hand just an hour before the closing time of midnight.
"I used to come to Tohono Chul when I was a kid, so I have all of those childhood memories," said Philippe Bierny, a frequent visitor to the park. "Tonight I just wanted to bring my friend Amy, because she lives in Tombstone and has never been here before."
About 604 visitors went to the park Wednesday night, which Ring said was fewer than last year, when an estimated 1,000 visitors wandered the park's paths on bloom night in mid-July.
"I think the reason is that last year we only had one bloom night, and it was during a different time," Ring said. "This year, we are having two bloom nights, back to back."
This is the first time in about 7 years that Tohono Chul Park has decided to offer a two-night event because only half of the cacti in the park were blooming at one time, said the park's curator of plants, Russ Buhrow.
Buhrow, who for 20 years has studied this plant, and many other local desert flora, said that determining the cacti's blooming time is not as dependent on temperatures and rainfall as other Sonoran Desert cacti.
Although the Night Queen's blooming times may be a bit finicky, there is one thing that is guaranteed in the desert with the first rains of summer. More critters.
As Buhrow took a quick break and bit into an ice cream bar he suddenly looked over to one of the volunteers standing behind a table where you can enter a raffle to win one of the night-blooming cereus.
"You have something between your legs," Buhrow said.
Under a nearby table was a large king snake that quickly darted away towards the back wall of the small courtyard.
During the evening, several king snakes were spotted along the sandy desert paths, as well as a rather large tarantula that slowly crept along the pathway that leads further into the park.
"I suppose this is the only appropriate time to tell a woman that she has a snake between her legs," someone blurted out from a group of people who laughed and headed towards the entrance.