Throughout Sonora this month the desert is perfumed by a cactus known as Queen of the Night. The Peniocereus greggii appears for most of the year as a twirl of spindly sticks. But — for one night a year — it transforms into what is both a beautiful night bloomer as well as a legend.
Tohono Chul Park, with the largest public collection of night-blooming cereus, is the caretaker of Queen of the Night, and officially announces the night when most of its cereus cacti bloom. Then, the Park opens its gates until midnight to allow visitors to hear the legend and view the gorgeous, fragrant white blooms.
The legend of the night-blooming cereus is based in Tohono O’odham Native American tradition. A story of faith and family love, the legend is summarized here:
Long ago, a young 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-Mother-White-Head, 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-Mother-White-Head knew her daughter needed her urgently. The old woman traveled quickly, helped according to legend by “Little People” or animal spirits, who brought her food and sustained her along the way. Bent and tired, when she finally reached her daughter, Old-Mother-White-Head sadly saw that her daughter was dying. In her last wish, the daughter asked Old-Mother-White-Head to take her son back to the Tohono O’odham to grow into a gentle man.
The old woman knew she needed to help her daughter, and quietly placed her grandson in her daughter’s burden basket. Shouldering the basket, Old-Mother-White-Head snuck out of the village that night, and began the long journey back to her Tohono O’odham village.
As Yaqui warriors followed her, the old woman struggled, falling and running as fast as she could with her grandchild. She was so old, and the Little People or animal spirits of the coyote tried to help. The Old-Mother-White-Head called out to the O’odham Creator l’itoi, as she struggled with her last breaths. l’itoi came and sent birds to blind the warriors. But the Old-Mother-White-Head could not go on, and asked l’itoi to take her grandson back to her village. He granted her request, and the old woman was happy even as she neared death alone in the desert.
Tohono Chul Park Director of Education & Visitor Services Jo Falls continues with the story: Some time later, l’itoi returned to the spot where the old woman lay — He had magically sunk her into the ground and turned her into sticks and a few wisps of hair to fool the pursuing Yaqui. She is fading and he wakens her to tell her the boy is safe. She asks if she can stay where she is always, and that she would like to be beautiful. He grants her wish, touching her arms that are like withered sticks and where his finger rests there appears a bud which opens to the beautiful, white flower.
From the spindles of the old woman come the beautiful huge fragrant flowers that are the night-blooming cereus, and all night bloomers today are borne from Old-Mother-White-Head. One night each year, the desert is privileged to watch the wondrous bloom — a reminder to all about the great power of love and faith.
And so goes the story about Sonora’s Queen of the Night. The legend appears on the Tohono Chul Park website, and is 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). Copyright 2001-2007.
Tohono Chul Park’s original bloom night was held in June 1992, and was an impromptu affair, attended mostly by Park groundskeepers, volunteers and friends. The Park event is still free to members ($5 for non-members) and has grown to attract thousands. To get on the night bloom “watch” list for 2014, visit www.bloomwatch.org
– Tohono Chul Park cites an adapted version of the legend found in J.A. Jance, Hour of the Hunter (Avon Books, 1991), pp. 247-249. http://www.tohonochulpark.org/Art/NBC.html
– Arizona Public Media: https://ondemand.azpm.org/p/segments/2013/6/26/25061-queen-of-the-night-flower-a-desert-mystery/