On Capturing A Flower That Blooms Once A Year
I was first introduced to the Queen of the Night (Selenicereus grandiflorus) many years ago, when I heard a story about a flowering cactus that only blooms once a year, at night, and is wilted by dawn. I was speaking at a digital photography group in 2009 when a woman came up to me after class and asked, in a strong Scottish accent, about a point and shoot camera on which she was getting less than favorable results. She explained to me that she was an avid gardener who wanted to be able to take photos in her gardens, specifically of a flower called Queen of the Night, an exceptionally large flower with a soft, sweet fragrance that fills the night air on the one evening a year in which it blooms. Queen of the Night, I later found out, is a member of the cactus family and as a plant seems unremarkable, but the flower — a showy, stunning white bloom — is a real show-stopper.
At the time, I had never heard of Queen of the Night, but when the woman explained to me that it only blooms one night a year and that the bloom dies by the morning, my interest was piqued. The truth was she would never be able to get a great photo of the flower with the camera she had, so I offered to come to her home and shoot it for her. We exchanged phone numbers and she said she would let me know when she thought it might bloom within the next couple of weeks.
The initial phone call was on a Monday and I was put ‘on call’ as our grand beauty could bloom any day. I cleared my calendar for the next two days ‘in the event of’ and waited patiently, feeling as though we were awaiting the arrival of a baby.
Eventually, the phone call came: at 6 PM on Wednesday I gathered up what gear I thought I might need and made the executive decision to rely on an old photography technique called “painting with light” in order to capture the image. The basic technique requires the photographer to have a completely dark subject in front of which they place their camera on a tripod and choose a shutter speed that will keep the shutter open for an extended period of time — in this case, about 20 seconds. While the shutter is open, the photographer takes a light source (small flashlight) and “paints” where they would like the light to fall on the subject. This creates a very dramatic lighting scheme, which ended up being the perfect way to capture Queen of the Night.
It was a warm summer night in late August, and after I got all the shots I thought we needed we sat listening to classical music and had a glass of wine together. As I began to pack up my gear I thought about how lucky I was to have this rare opportunity: to see and photograph an extraordinary flower that blooms only once a year. But before I left, my gracious hostess presented me with a clipping of the Queen of the Night that she had rooting in a wonton soup container. I was absolutely thrilled. She gave me an opportunity to grow my very own Queen of the Night, a clipping from the beautiful flower you see above.
Three years after I planted that clipping I was finally graced once again by her presence, and once again– as if on call– I took out my photo gear and painted her with light.