Rare Blooms

Photograph by Stacey Lowe / Getty Images


words by Willow Defebaugh

Spring is here. As the sunflowers rise, lilies flower, and tulips open, more unique phenomenons bloom in the background.

“To be oneself is a rare thing, and a great one.”

Ursula K. Le Guin

Spring has found its way to Brooklyn. The last few evenings, I’ve enjoyed cooking barefoot in my kitchen, the warm breeze blowing through my open windows, the lingering of the light. Few sights bring me greater pleasure than watching buds begin to form on the trees outside—the promise of flowers. I spent much of my life envying blossoms, the everyday elegance of their becoming. There was a time I longed to emulate the radiance of sunflowers, the softness of lilies, the refinement of roses. These days, I find myself enraptured by more unusual blooms.


In the gloomy swamps of Florida grows a plant whose endangered beauty is as otherworldly as its name suggests: the ghost orchid, Dendrophylax lindenii. What begins as an unremarkable, leafless plant snaking along a cypress tree gives way to a flower far more ethereal—and rare. Only one in ten flower each year, and only one in ten of those will be pollinated. And while most moths cannot reach inside their long nectar tubes, a few specific species have evolved to pollinate these specters of the swamp. For every bloom, there is something born to find it.


Equally macabre is the corpse flower, Amorphophallus titanum, named for the aroma of rotting flesh it emits. While many might find its scent repulsive, not all do; it attracts flies and beetles that lay their eggs in carrion. These insects that land on them become covered in pollen, which they then carry to other plants. When this plant does flower—every two to ten years, and only for a day or two—it can grow up to twelve feet tall. Alongside the Rafflesia arnoldii (also known as a corpse flower), it is the largest bloom on Earth: an unapologetic reminder to take up space.


Rarer than the blooms of these botanical giants is that of Agave americana. While the century plant doesn’t actually bloom every 100 years as its name implies, it still only flowers every 30 years. When it does, this prehistoric-looking succulent sends a single stalk skyward, which can reach 30 feet or higher. Shortly after, it dies, leaving behind seeds for the next generation to take its place. Meanwhile, Puya raimondii, the queen of the Andes, can actually take as many as 100 years to bloom. Some of this planet’s most majestic life forms take their time to blossom.


And then there are those flowers that do bloom overnight, evolved to attract the attention of bats and moths, their petals reflecting the light of the moon. Ipomoea alba, the moonflower or moonvine, unveils itself after dusk and then closes again by morning. Night-blooming jasmine fills the midnight air with its sweet fragrance, while the evening primrose show their saffron hues after sunset. Night-blooming cereus is a whole family of cacti that only bloom in the dark, including the Epiphyllum oxypetalum or queen of the night, which opens just once a year.


There are nearly 400,000 varieties of known plants that flower on this planet, each with their own unique expression. In a society that is constantly trying to turn us into everyone else, it’s the work of a lifetime to simply be ourselves—to realize that we are not beholden to anyone else’s idea of what it looks like to blossom. I would rather grow in the gloom, cloak myself in the scent of death, open by the light of the moon. I would rather take my time to bloom. 

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