Words by Laura Bayliss
On 20 February, for one night only a rare Amazonian cactus called the Moonflower bloomed for what is thought to be the first time in the UK. In the days leading up to the big event, the University of Cambridge’s Botanic Garden kept a careful watch over Selenicereus wittii, and more than 200,000 people expectantly tuned in to the live stream to witness it unfurling its petals. Usually the Moonflower blooms at sunset, with the whole show being over by sunrise making its appearance all the more magical and mysterious. Typically, as all good divas, it decided to show up earlier at 5pm, forcing everyone to change their plans.
The cactus is unusual in that is trails up around the trunks of trees and has flat pads, like leaves. Back home, this keeps it out of the seasonal floods. The seeds of the Moonflower then float away on the water to find another tree to grow on. An adventuring British environmentalist and artist, Margaret Mee first spotted the Moonflower in the Amazon in 1972, returning in her 70s to paint it a decade later. Flowers that bloom at night often symbolise hope and creativity – a beacon of beauty shining out of the darkness.
After such excitement and build up, the resulting flower is a joy to look at – delicate white petals, like a glowing star – the flower itself a showy puff measuring 28cm long and 15cm wide. As it flowers, it gives out a sweet scent of jasmine or honeysuckle to attract pollinators, but a couple of hours later, as the flower fades, its aroma changes to something ‘in the realm of public toilets’, according to staff at the gardens.
Overexcited, dressed up to the nines, peaking early, and a few hours later smelling like a toilet? With much of it livestreamed for posterity? Sounds like us come 21 June.
You can watch the big moment here: