Archive for September 2010

Degree Days   Leave a comment

We learned about degree days this summer. We didn’t have enough of them, even though it was so hot for most of the season.  A sudden dip in temperatures late August from the mid to high 80s down to the 70s  likely delayed Blanca’s blooming.  But it was a shift I wasn’t entirely aware of. I thought I’d been pretty clever predicting almost infallibly which night Blanca would bloom.  I’d put out the word to friends to come for a party, but by 7 :30 p.m. when bud opening  should have begun, nothing had happened. The buds remained sealed shut.  I tried again the next night. And the next. Then I had to admit those buds really weren’t large enough to open.

Bill, our tree expert friend reminded us how important degree days are to a  plant’s growth. Those accumulated days of heat, a certain minimum that must be maintained for plant development are essential. Farmers watch these measurements carefully as degree days  also signal when certain insect pests may become mature enough to damage  crops. Then out come the pesticides. No such action here. Just the waiting and watching,  and the lesson, once again: stay alert; don’t get too far ahead of yourself.  Don’t assume ahead of where the plant actually is.

We’d had a furiously busy events schedule the weekend I thought Blanca would bloom. Anticipating her blooming each night was what got me through each day. Then each night she remained closed actually became something of a reprise.  Friday, Saturday, Sunday passed with more inquiring phone calls, and more postponements. “Is she blooming, yet?” friends would ask. “Not yet, ” I’d reply sheepishly. “Maybe tomorrow; tomorrow, for sure,” I’d say attempting to regain my footing.  But I didn’t really know what was going on. So we waded through the weekend like this wondering when they’d open. Meanwhile,  my credibility and certainty seemed to fade.

Once Monday rolled around, the shop events over, we were rested and ready. And so was Blanca, apparently.  She rewarded us and a group of new comers with eight glorious blossoms in one night. We lost track counting in the dazzling display. It was a perfect evening to sit out around the beloved Queen of the Night and enjoy each other’s company. On Tuesday one more bud  opened, a quiet coda,  just in time for cousin Frank’s visit. Another opportunity to  sit at the foot of beauty and realize no matter how frenzied I get, there are moments of calm in the storm. Slow down; be observant; don’t assume, she reminds us. The temperatures had cooled, and Blanca’s blooming held off until I could really appreciate it, in a new way, with new friends. All over again, but still learning something new.


Posted September 19, 2010 by Canio's in about time, bud watch, Uncategorized

But what does she look like?   1 comment

Our guests had ever seen a night-bloomer before.  A priest, a musician, a landscape architect, an arborist, a young writer and more all crowded around and were amazed. “I’d never be able to draw this,” said David. I’ve had difficulty trying to describe this  flower. Think of the Hindu goddess Shakti with multiple arms curving from her supple torso.  Think of a long slender arm, a foot long, but curved like a saxophone, wearing a skin-tight white glove. The hand opens to many tapered fingers of white silk. Where the palm would be, a smooth white tunnel recedes to infinity. It’s fringed with 16 silken threads , harp strings strung fiber to fiber and curved in semi-circle. Within the arc of stamens a most unusual stigma, the snout of a sea creature? A spider-like figure with legs at odd angles. This is the world her pollinator might enter, crawl around in, becoming enmeshed.  A hummingbird, if it flew at night, could get entirely lost within.  We bystanders were certainly ensnared. Sally brought a lovely bottle of wine, the palest of roses that matched the shade of that indefinable area where Blanca’s bud transforms into blossom. Where does the bud leave off and the flower begin? Which part is neck , and which is face?

But none of this works. To bring Blanca’s beauty before your eyes I would have to take it further,  and avoid anthropomorphism altogether. In Mark Doty’s recent prose work The Art of Description, he reads closely four poems about sunflowers by William Blake, Alan Shapiro, Allen Ginsberg, and Tracy Jo Barnwell. Each takes the commonly recognizable image and transforms it into something entirely new.  Doty writes, “They’re self-portraits, at least in the sense of portraying some aspect of the speaker’s psyche, and they manage to be true to sunflowers, too…” Here at this latitude, I’m not so sure my description is true to the night bloomer, if I would even dare link my meager efforts here with those of a finish poem.  Sure most of us could easily call to mind an image of a sunflower, but not so with the night-bloomer.  What’s more, my mid-Atlantic vantage point may see her differently from those who grew up with Epiphylum oxypetalum  right in their own backyard.

Finally, think of a lotus blossom floating not on a pad in pool of water, but through darkest night.  Better yet, what do you think she looks like?

Posted September 18, 2010 by Canio's in botany, environment, on writing

On Smell   Leave a comment

One of the unusual, if minor, aspects of Dorothy Day’s autobiography The Long Loneliness is that she includes early on, scent memories.  It may seem like a small detail in light of the book’s main subject —  her coming to consciousness as a Catholic and social activist. Still the fact that she mentions  smells at all  signals to me an extraordinary individual, one acutely aware of her surroundings.  Perhaps it is through her heightened sense of perception that she came to conversion.  Dorothy Day remembers the odor of a friend’s house in Oakland that smelled of fresh shingles, an odd scent for a child to remember.  Later, after the great earthquake, the family moved into an apartment in Chicago. Young Dorothy was eager for some contact with nature. She remembers the scent of the sweet clover that fringed the cement-paved yard that was her playground. She gathered bunches of it to dry and stuff in pillows.  She remembers the smell of fresh popped popcorn watching from behind a window a sidewalk vendor pour butter and shake salt over the hot kernels. When her father’s job improved and the family could afford to move into  a house, Day describes it thus: “To draw the curtains at night on a street where people bent against the wind, and where a steady whirl of snowflakes blurred the outlines of trees and shrubs, and made the trees black against the heavy gray sky, and to turn to a room where a fire glowed in the basket grate and a smell of fresh bread filled the house–this was comfort, security, peace, community.”

For most, our sense of smell is the weakest way we perceive the world. Friends react differently to the power of the odor Blanca emits in her late night effort to attract whatever it is that will pollinate her. Some can’t smell it at all. Others choke on the heavy pollen dust they inhale. If I noted that the fragrance she issues into dark night  is comprised of  benzyl salicylate, would that bring you any closer to enjoying that musky sweetness? To say it smells like a combination of gardenia, jasmine and Casablanca lilies is only  a rough approximation.  It’s a heavy scent that lingers in the nose even after I’ve walked away from her. Sometimes I can almost taste it. Once I  thought I smelled it the next day, long after her blossoms had closed and she sat quietly, flowers hanging like curtain tassels, bedraggled. The memory of a party stirred up by the sight of your dress hung limp over a bedroom chair?
Carol saw some  cereus-scented products for sale on line. Bath salts. Perfumes.  Candles. Would we really want to be doused in such a fragrance? Perhaps  if your name were Cleopatra, or Aphrodite. But for the rest of us, it might be a bit much. Turned out these products were fashioned after another type of blooming cactus native to the hot deserts of Arizona. The fragrance creator had “memorized” the scent of the flower. Astounding! He could reproduce the scent without using the actual flower.

An unexpected bonus this season: the tropical rains that showered us, remnants of Hurricane Earl brought a late season drink to the many parched plants in the garden. One result, a hosta I’d wanted to do away with but didn’t, sprouted a long-stemmed lovely white blossom. When I bent near it to retrieve a pot that had blown off the deck railing, I was stunned by her elegant fragrance, one I’d never noticed before. Oh no!! How to describe this one? Lighter, younger than Blanca’s; a girl to her womanly ways. Something like lily-of-the-valley, fresh and watery. And I don’t even know her name. Fragrant hostas, anyone?

Posted September 14, 2010 by Canio's in environment, gardening, Uncategorized

On Beauty   1 comment

If as Simone Weil has described, attention to beauty can be a form of prayer, I’d say I’ve been doing a lot of praying this summer…watching Blanca bloom, gazing at the widening white blossoms, as they slowly, slowly grow like a small moon over days and nights waxing.

Once they have opened fully, I am caught in an intricate and elaborate net of petals. There comes a time of night after the party when the guests have left. It’s likely past midnight and I’m probably a little tired, have had a bit of bubbly, and rest in the  quiet. Just me and the flower and I don’t want to leave off looking. I know it will be a long while before I am lucky enough to see this again. I am caught, or rather left in the deep silence with nothing but the flower. Darkness increases, the flower  increases and this is all and everything.

Today it is bright and beautiful, a clear blue sky, just like the morning of September 11, 2001, that day of rage and horror and loss. This 9/11 let’s gaze at something enormously beautiful, something larger than that awful pit at Ground Zero, and let’s listen to something more beautiful than the ravings of the mad. And remember we’re part of something bigger and vastly more beautiful, maybe as close as the nearest leaf or blade of grass, or as distant as an infinitesimally tiny speck of star.

Posted September 11, 2010 by Canio's in Uncategorized

Pachamamas Preserving Blanca’s home   Leave a comment

With a little piece of the rain forest, Blanca, a resident of the tropics, currently living in my backyard here in the temperate zone of the mid-Atlantic states, eastern end of Long Island, I feel called to consider what it means that this particular plant, one small tendril on a long and curvaceous inter-connected ecosystem has been plucked and transported so far north. What’s it like back home?What is my broader responsibility in nurturing Blanca?

We know the rain forests are in jeopardy. Considering the rampant environmental destruction taking place worldwide, I want to do one small thing to help protect Blanca’s home. There’s an upcoming symposium at the U.U. congregation in Bridgehampton: Awakening the Dreamer/Changing the Dream. It’s an afternoon’s presentation, Sunday, October 3,  about how to live a more sustainable, spiritual and equitable life. The symposium is a program of the Pachamama Alliance, a group dedicated to preserving tropical rain forests around the world by empowering indigenous people and to creating a new global vision of equity and sustainability for all . I want to support them, and I will attend the symposium.  For the privilege of having a small piece of that rain forest right here in Sag Harbor. For the sake of my dear nieces and nephew. And because it’s a moral obligation to do so. Learn more at these links:  and

Posted September 10, 2010 by Canio's in environment, Uncategorized

Green Thumb?   Leave a comment

I just received some very high praise from a plant woman I respect and admire. She said I must have a very green thumb. She said that it is very, very unusual for a plant to have bloomed three times this season.
I thank Marina Whelan, and have provided a link to her wonderful website, The Amateur’s Digest which I learned about from Carol Williams, author of Bringing a Garden to Life, a book I highly recommend.

But it’s not me, after all,  it’s the plant. And beyond that, it’s the creative force streaming through her. Something larger than us both. I am a mostly attentive caretaker trying to learn the best way to be around the beautiful Blanca.

Still, I feel no particular talent toward the plants, but a love and enjoyment of them. I’m a lazy gardener especially by mid-July when it’s too hot to do much. I fear I neglected Blanca this hot dry summer by not watering her enough. Nevertheless she produced three wonderful cycles of blooms lasting several nights running.

She got me through a few rough patches…intense times this summer when the anticipation of her blooms kept me looking forward. Then the reward of her glorious opening, when time slowed down again and there was nothing else to do but sit and observe, wait a bit more, and be amazed.

Posted September 9, 2010 by Canio's in gardening, Uncategorized

Planning a party around an Epi   Leave a comment

What should the host or hostess wear when receiving guests to see the blooming of a beloved night blooming cereus? White, of course, something simple so as not to compete with the bride, as they say of mothers-in-law.  Alternately, you might wear black so as to slip into the nighttime landscape. Pastels are suitable; plaids should be avoided (sorry Kat). Never wear perfume or cologne when throwing an epi party. You want guests to sense the full effect of her rich and heady odor. Bug spray is optional; citronella a judgment call.

All eyes should be on the flower, so try to place her in the center of your gathering, perhaps on a small but sturdy accent table. Take care to protect her from party-goers who might peer too close after having too much bubbly. Gently request that guests not fondle the flower too aggressively.  They will likely be tempted to touch her silky petals. Again it’s a judgment call. Guests will be astounded by the sheer delicacy of these petals.  Some, if they are particularly thick-skinned,  may not feel anything at all.  Such is the ethereal nature of this exotic creature.
What to serve? Since open bloom time is later evening, decide whether to prepare a proper supper, or provide snacks, cheese and crackers, and dessert. Consider how many guests to invite, and how long you think they can tolerate watching a plant bloom. The snacks and dessert option allows guests to come and go with ease. Otherwise, the leisurely supper works best when you’ve taken care to invite those who  show some interest in events botanical.

In any case, lighter fare would be in keeping with the spirit of the night. Blanca is a feast for the eyes and nose, so keep the food a pleasant but not over-powering second. Champagne is a natural choice. Proseco is nice, too. Adventurous chefs might go in for regional specialties that recall Epi’s native home: serve Sri Lankan dishes or Mexican, or Central American. Fruit is always a good choice, grapes, berries, pineapple, melon.

Don’t forget to provide music for the grand opening. Maybe you have a sound track from a tropical rain forest? Perfect!  Otherwise consider something quiet and melodic.  Susan Graham’s La Belle Epoque: The Songs of Reynaldo Hahn is a favorite of mine when Blanca is blooming.

And it’s always fun to include a bit of flower lore to further intrigue your guests. More on that in another post.

We’ve had many gatherings over the past two years, and we’re always refining what we do. I’d love to hear your party suggestions, successes and missteps, too.

Posted September 9, 2010 by Canio's in Uncategorized

Tropical   1 comment

You can take the girl out of the tropics, but can you really take the tropics out of the girl? Today, the tropics, via Hurricane Earl have arrived in Sag Harbor and have showered Blanca, her lovely tassels swaying in the still gentle winds, with soaking rains. Perhaps she feels right at home. After blooming magnificently earlier this week (eight eye-popping flowers on Monday night; one more, the post-script on Tuesday, singularly gorgeous), Blanca is at rest. What perfect timing for this long soaking rain to bathe her, slake what must be a long deep thirst after three blooming cycles this hot, dry summer.

Posted September 3, 2010 by Canio's in environment, Uncategorized