The Night-Blooming Cereus in Hawaii

The brig Ivanhoe was bound from Boston to Canton around 1830. While docked in Mexico, several plants were loaded aboard, presumably as gifts. When the ship docked in Honolulu, most of the plants had died, and were being thrown away. Then first officer (later Captain) Charles Brewer rescued the cereus plants because they still showed signs of life. They were planted in Honolulu where they thrived. Some specimens were also soon taken to Wailuku on Maui and elsewhere.

Queen Kaahumanu was determined to have a school built for the Hawaiian people. She turned over a large plot of land to the Reverend Hiram Bingham to build the school.

In 1836, Mrs. Hiram Bingham, grandmother of Senator Bingham of Connecticut, planted several of the clones in the top of the lava rock wall around the site of the new Punahou Academy. Those plants were the ancestors of the ones on the wall, today. They bloom from May to November, with large white cactus flowers, and each flower opens only for one night, beginning at dusk, wilting the following morning. Sometimes the whole thousand or so feet of wall is covered with blooms, a sight like the finale of a fireworks display.

The botanical name for the night blooming cereus is Hylocereus undatus. It is also known as “Queen of the Night,” and “Honolulu Queen.” In Hawaiian, they are called “panini o kapunahou.”

One night, after dark, I was walking by the wall during a massive bloom of these wonderful, pungent flowers, and I was taken not only by this dazzling botanical show but also by the sparkling quality of the light as it struck the translucent white petals from several directions. I wanted to convey what I saw, but at first thought it might be a near impossibility. The light, of course, was from the sodium vapor streetlights parallel to the wall. These are similar to the lights used for safelights in many darkrooms, but I expected that panchromatic film might be sufficiently sensitive to their limited spectrum to capture a useable image. I felt that it would be impossible to duplicate this wonderful light in a studio, so I decided to at least try to photograph them in place, without flash or additional lighting. Of course, the flowers would need to be stock still for some very long exposures, but if they weren’t, perhaps the motion would be interesting, too. As it turned out, it worked, and they often cooperated.

Here in Hawaii, we are known for our almost steady trade winds. At times, the high pressure area that causes them moves away from its normal location though, and we get what we call Kona weather, when there is often no wind or a reversal of the trade winds. It seems that the cereus plants have a genetic disposition to bloom during still nights in their native Mexico, in order that their perfume will attract the most flying moths to pollinate the flowers. In Hawaii there are few of the same kind of flying insects, and no real population of moths that would be attracted to the flowers, but the plants still follow their genetic disposition and bloom most often during Kona weather. Sometimes, this weather pattern also brings rain, but often the cereus blooms during perfectly still and clear nights. That is good fortune for someone trying to photograph these extraordinary apparitions by streetlight. Also, there must be little or no traffic to stir the air. Two-thirty a.m. seems to be a good time. The flowers are fully open, not yet ready to close, and traffic is minimal. A typical exposure is 10 to 20 minutes.

In 1946, Botanist Otto Degener wrote in his “New Illustrated Hawaiian Flora,” that “Although flowering profusely, the night blooming cereus seldom set fruit in the Islands, possibly because all the local plants are clons (sic).” I spoke to a prominent contemporary botanist, who was of the same opinion, thinking that over many generations of cloning, the plants had lost their genetic ability to set fruit.

But, one night I watched as the plants missed their timing. The evening started out still, but as the flowers began to open, the trade winds returned suddenly, and with a vengeance. The wind literally ripped the flowers to shreds. In the morning, it looked like a disaster had struck the flowers. They were a raggedy mess, and there was pollen everywhere. In a few days the whole wall was full of developing cereus fruit. They had been pollinated by the wind. Soon, the fruit turned red. There was no mistaking them, and their sweetness attracted ants that quickly hollowed them out. The botanical mystery was solved. By the time the bees get to the wilting flowers at daybreak, it is apparently too late to pollinate the flowers, and the lack of night flying insects is the one and only reason that the plants rarely set fruit here in Hawaii.