Archive for the ‘history’ Category

More from Blithewold Poet-in-Residence   Leave a comment

More about the McKees to add to “Marvelous Cereus History,” and with thanks for Martha.

The McKees of  Blithewold were indeed affected by the Depression, Martha explained.  They did suffer reversals of a sort.  William Leander McKee  a “manufacturer” of leather, was forced to sell their Boston residence  when business declined.  The McKees then moved permanently to Blithewold, a not too shabby address, to be sure, but still a change in circumstances. Further, the McKees had to sell some 35 acres of their beautiful estate. Nevertheless, the parties continued.  As they should!

How long that enormous cereus survived, and how many parties it inspired, we do not know. Whether chopped chicken liver was later served instead of caviar, well, that we’ll leave to the archivists to uncover. What lingers in the imagination is the fragrance of 200 blooming cereus blossoms wafting out the greenhouse doors as guests came and went on a warm summer night in 1937,  having raised a glass to an exotic plant. A touch of the tropics in prim New England.


Posted August 14, 2010 by Canio's in history

Some marvelous Cereus history   Leave a comment

Dear friend Martha sent a clipping from the archives of the lovely Blithewold Estate. “Bristol’s Cereus Puts on Show” shouts the headline. An eye-popping photograph shows the trailing leaders of  a huge plant with about 29 flowers in bloom. The caption explains they are only a portion of the 200 or so that opened on a night-blooming Cereus in a greenhouse on the estate of a certain William L. McKee. This from the Providence Sunday Journal, August 8, 1937.

The article notes an “enthralled audience” gathered to enjoy the spectacle. It is reported that at about 8 p.m. the “gorgeous white blossoms began to expand from their green pods.” This corresponds to the time when our Blanca begins to move, give or take 20 to 30 minutes. A certain W.H. Owen, superintendent of the property had been caring for the plant over the previous 12 years and had become thoroughly acquainted with its habits. “He said he expected it to blossom several nights ago but it didn’t probably because it was bearing more blooms than ever before.”

By 8:30 p.m., it is reported, “fully 150 blooms, six inches in diameter and containing a circle of creamy yellow stamens within were exposed to view.”

“The flower bears some resemblance to a huge white tulip and exudes a powerful, sweet fragrance, completely permeating the atmosphere of the hothouse.”  This particular specimen, Mr. Owen explained, had been developed from a cutting brought from Peru 30 years previous.   The plant had spread the entire breadth of the building, some 14 feet.

I’ve had the pleasure of visiting Blithewold, the former estate of Mr. McKee. I strolled the beautiful grounds and visited its greenhouses with Martha, poet-in-residence there. No traces of the enormous Cereus were in evidence, yet the property boasts an impressive collection of trees and views of Narragansett Bay that make it a popular setting for wedding photographs.

It wasn’t hard to image this elaborate and romantic plant luring in late night visitors with its spectacular flowers and fragrance. Guests of Mr. and Mrs. McKee likely dressed for the occasion, perhaps in white, and perhaps sipped cocktails, maybe champagne. Bessie, the hostess and heiress and her husband were known for their gracious hospitality and carefully orchestrated parties for family and friends, according to Blithewold history. It would have been an elegant party, at which glasses may have tinkled, and ladies’ refined laughter mixed with the heady fragrance of 200 hundred exotic flowers, guests  insulated for a time from the Depression which those outside the gates might have been suffering under.  Such is the allure of the night-blooming Cereus.  She calls us like a Siren and we can do nothing but follow the sound of her beautiful voice wherever it may lead us.

Posted August 13, 2010 by Canio's in history

Thanks to Giacomo   Leave a comment

We decided to throw a little house party timed to see the camelias in bloom and the azaleas. Their deep hot colors made a splash of forceful red and purple against the pale siding of our house mid-May. Our Miss Floozy camelia had put out her stuff early, flouncy cups of deep salmon pink.  It threatened rain all Sunday afternoon, skies were overcast, and finally, a few sprinkles showered guests who’d  escaped to the deck. To celebrate our domestic partnership, our “dom-pat” party we called it, a couple dozen friends crammed in bearing an assortment of gifts.   Beth made a delicious fluffy coconut cake with origami peace doves as decoration. Jim, or Giacomo when we were feeling operatic, brought a six-inch slip of  plant wrapped in moist paper towel. “A night-blooming cereus,” he called it. I’d never heard of such a thing. “It only blooms at night,” he said. A big beautiful white flower with a fabulous fragrance. “Stick it in some dirt,” he advised. An unusual gift,  I thought. Little did I know what lavish mysteries lay secreted within this  flat unassuming leaf.  It was spring 2005. Jim and his partner Robert had enjoyed the plant for 20 years. It grew up around the sliders to their deck, a long rambling trail. Typical of an epiphyte, but maybe it was searching for more light.  Robert was gone now, and Giacomo wasn’t sure where they’d first gotten their plant. There’s usually a story behind every night bloomer. Ask around.

Posted June 29, 2010 by Canio's in history

Story of a flower   Leave a comment

Epiphyllum oxypetalum. Night-blooming cereus, an orchid cactus. a.k.a. Queen of the Night, Bethlehem Lily, Dutchman’s Pipe. Take your pick. These are the names of an extraordinary flower native to Central America and Mexico. Friends from LA and Key West say they grow wild there. Intoxicating.  Exotic on the East End of Long Island. Once popular in the ’20s and ’30s when house parties were planned around the flower, the center of attention, they are less well know today, but have many fans and collectors. The story of this flower, its botanical mysteries and miracles is also my story of growth from a carelessness and neglectful caretaker to that of an intrigued then obsessed devotee, to one finally left speechless  in awe. I’m no expert, but an admirer, no professional, but an amateur, a lover then, of the plant and its passing beauty.

This is my sixth year with the night bloomer I’ve named Blanca. Last year we had abundant blooming, several in August and eight at once in October.  This spring  I gave away many cuttings, hoping they’d bring joy and pleasure to others someday.  Meanwhile, the mother plant now has five buds measuring nearly two inches long. Several cuttings taken too soon are also budding. If these bloom, it’ll be a small miracle. If they don’t, as is likely,  it’ll reinforce the lesson of waiting before you prune, of taking a very long deep breath before you wield that slicing knife. This is a story of attentiveness and patience, the preciousness of time, and the lavishness of fragrance. Of watching closely.

Posted June 29, 2010 by Canio's in history