Monday, July 15, 2019

Truth, Beauty, Hang it on the wall. Part II:

Photo Essay: Rat-tail Night-blooming Cereus 
Michael Sedano

“This blossom is so beautiful compared to any other flower, it knocks my socks off and I could die tomorrow knowing I haven’t missed a thing” is quite a mouthful, so that’s why people describe something as kingly or queenly. The cactus flower of Selenicereus grandiflorus, for example, gets the sobriquet “Queen of the Night.”

Partially opened, this blossom is larger than Michael Sedano's head.

I don’t much hold with monarchism but, of course, I understand its etymology. Hegemonic position infects our vocabulary. A few generations ago, fans idolized Duke Snider even though he wasn’t the Home Run King. Duke Ellington continues to rule the big bandstand even as few people remember who was the King of Swing. Once your eyes fill with the wonder of a night-blooming cactus blossom you’ll forever feel fulfilled that your eyes know calling such natural wonders "Queen" understates the enduring Truth that is Beauty. Both are like Mercy, above this sceptered sway.

This Queen of the Night deserves her accolade, even if it is not true. There are lots of cacti whose blossoms get called queen of the night. And to be fully truthful,  “night” means different times to different flowers.

I grow one “Queen of the Night” cactus that opens after dark and fully opens at 1 or 2 in the morning. I can photograph it with 8 minute exposures in distant porchlight. With first light, its delicate petals collapse into wet limp tissue that desiccates to an abstraction. That one's not the “Queen of the Night” featured in today’s Chicano Photography feature on La Bloga-Tuesday.

I call her the Rat-tail Cereus for its sinuous tubular pencas. Botanists know her as Selenicereus grandiflorus. Grande es, que no? That is I behind a just-opening flower in the first foto above.

The Rat-tail is special at both ends of her journey. Early in her budding she promises grandness as she elongates from a hairy nubbin to a ten-inch trumpet that glistens with nectar. At around 5 p.m. she opens her tightly-wound tip showing bright yellow promise. 


Her form and color become eye-opening at the waning of light at around 7 p.m. This “night-bloomer” gets really spectacular between 730 and 800. Good thing because the light is gone after then, and all the color values get mucked up--I eschew artificial lighting and let the camera do its thing--as the flower continues growing beauteously in darkness. The fully spread blossom makes herself available around ten p.m.

Looking closely at a petal, all those ridges are like the veins on a butterfly wing. The penca pumps those petals full of volume, unwrapping the flower from the inside, sending nourishment into expanding and spreading surfaces, on the surface her ridges and folds sparkle and glisten from within. 

But gravity exerts a toll on those extended white and yellow petals and the coronal Calyx. With first light the extended white tips wrinkle and curl. Minutes pass too quickly for the collapsing corona that twitches as it collapses inward. Only the Stigma thrusts forward fruitlessly beckoning unknown guests to her hidden nectar now sealed tight behind her dying translucence.

She makes a big exit, sometimes. Each flower opens and collapses according to its destiny, one maybe not so pretty and photogenic as a compañera.

My plant made four fulfilling flowers this season on four nights, one after another. Perfumeless, and unvisited by a pollinator, the fourth blossom exuded a sweet citrusy scent as the lady makes one last offer to form a pitaya, and seed. 

The portraits of the lady in today’s foto essay come from three of those four flowers. One started out spectacularly then collapsed formlessly the next day. 

Friends look upon the close-ups of the dying flower and evoke painter Georgia O’Keefe. That’s an honor I didn’t intend but I see strong resemblances in what O’Keefe sees and what my lens captures. The Stigma, the star, offers a passage to pollen. Pollen grows below the Stigma in a forest of Anthers. Deep in the base where the ovaries await pollen, sweet nectar pools in such abundance it leaks into glistening droplets on her outer skin. No critter visits, she blossoms and disappears, exists only to be seen.


These are digital photographs. I use ISO800 and experiment with f/32 or f/5. f/32 produces deep focus in close-up. f/5 blurs the background and offers a shallow depth of field. I set the camera, a Canon T2i with a 100mm macro lens, on a tripod during the full daylight. I focus on the unopened bud and put the lens to manual focus. Low light focusing is a problem with this camera, totally unreliable. The combination of f-stop and manual focus assures a competent exposure. I connect an RF remote to the Canon. Radio Frequency allows me to write at my computer while now and again pressing the remote.


I press the button hundreds of times hoping for a good deep dark foto. I’ve captured maybe one or two acceptable ones. You can’t orate a damn if your feet hurt, and you can’t photograph worth a damn if there’s no light. I can’t do anything about the light but I’m considering it. Next year. This cactus is done until 2020, and then, as today, only one span of hours on only one night of the year will you see with your own eyes.

This is Part II of my ongoing documentation of the ephemeral beauties growing along the shady driveway of Casa Sedano. Part I features color blossoms in daylight (link). None of those Part I blossoms are called "queen" of anything. So it goes for Flowers of Color. Never good enough despite being drop-dead gorgeous.

In closing today's slide show, I note these images print spectacularly at large sizes on archival material like paper, canvas, aluminum. 

La Bloga isn’t a commercial site, so if you’d like to hang fine art prints of any image at home or office contact Michael Sedano by email.

You can print these watermarked jpegs at home using photo paper. The image will be about 7” x 10” and won’t fade for a few months. The archival prints I make last 100 years properly conserved, but we'll never know.

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