Our Peniocereus greggii bloomed tonight with her two fragrant white flowers. For the entire year it appears as if this little plant is twirl of dead sticks, but for one night it transforms into a magnificent Queen of the Night with gorgeous blooms.
So tonight is the night to tell the story of the night-blooming cereus. The Tohono O’odham Native Americans have a legend behind the blooming of this plant, and I will try to summarize it here:
In ancient times a young Papago (Tohono O’odham) woman met and married a Yaqui, and went to live with his family far away. The young woman’s mother, called Old White-Haired Woman, missed her daughter, and would go every night to the foothills to talk with her daughter’s spirit.
When her daughter’s spirit did not speak one night, Old White-Haired Woman knew her daughter needed her urgently. Old White-Haired Woman was very bent but she traveled quickly, helped by the “Little People” or animal spirits, who brought her food and sustained her along the way. When she finally reached her daughter, sadly she saw that her daughter was dying. The daughter in her last wish asked Old White-Haired Woman to take her son back to the Tohono O’odham, so he could grow into a gentle man instead of a fighting warrior in the Yaqui nation.
The old woman was tired but she knew she needed to help her daughter. She quietly placed her grandson in her daughter’s burden basket. Shouldering the basket, Old White-Haired Woman snuck out of the village that night, and began the long journey back to the Tohono O’odham.
But Yaqui warriors followed her. She struggled, falling and running as fast as she could with her grandchild. She was so old. The Little People or animal spirits of the coyote tried to help but it was not enough. Old White-Haired Woman called out to the Indian god I’itoi, as she struggled with her last breaths. The Indian god came and sent birds to blind the warriors. Old White-Haired Woman could not go on, and asked I’itoi to take the grandson back to her village. He granted her request – and swiftly brought the grandson back to learn to live as a peaceful warrior with the Tohono O’odham nation.
The old woman was happy, as she neared death all alone in the desert. Then she saw her daughter’s spirit smiling, and joyfully Old White-Haired Woman’s spirit went to be with her daughter.
Some time later, I’itoi returned to the spot where the old woman lay – but only her two arms were visible above the desert sands that had buried her.
You did well, Old White Haired Woman, said I’itoi. And as a reward for your goodness, for one night every year you will be reborn to tell the world the importance of love.
With that, I’itoi touched the spindly arms of the old woman – and from the spindles beautiful huge fragrant flowers appeared. These flowers are the night-blooming cereus, and all night bloomers today are borne from Old White-Haired Woman. One night each year, the desert is privileged to watch this wondrous bloom. It is a reminder to us all of the great power of love.
And so goes the story of Queen of the Night (adapted from the formal tale by author Harold Bell Wright, published in Long Ago Told: Legends of the Papago Indians (New York: D. Appleton, 1929). I also want to give credit to Russ Buhrow of Tohono Chul Park, who tells the story during the Park's "night blooming cereus night."
May each of us learn from Old White-Haired Woman, and may each of us always appreciate the power of love in our lives!