- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 3, 2008

STAUNTON, Va.

The unopened buds look like they could have been rooted in Medusa’s head. Attached to thick stems and looking like fuschia snakes, they drop and curve upward from the leaves of Millicent Brubeck’s Night Blooming Cereus, turning their tips toward the inky sky and stars above.

They don’t come often - only once a year - and even then only for about a week. The tight buds start out small, then grow only to loosen their tentacle-like grip for just a few hours in a midsummer night display of rare beauty.

“Do they bloom faster when you watch?” asks Terry Jennings, Mrs. Brubeck’s granddaughter.

“I don’t think so,” replies Eleanor Jennings, Mrs. Brubeck’s daughter. “It’s kind of like watching water boil.”

But the Brubecks gather in the front yard with flashlights and a neighbor or two to watch the buds slowly stretch themselves out into huge milky white blossoms with tissue-paper petals and a sweet, earthy fragrance that carries across the lawn in the twilight.

By midnight they would begin to fade. By morning, the flowers would be gone.

“I tell them all goodnight and go to bed,” Mrs. Brubeck said. “Then, I wake up in the morning and they’re all a-droop. Nothing but droop.”

The 88-year-old likes to tell visitors the symbolism behind the flowers. She doesn’t know where it originated, but she has heard it time and again about the flowers. Stepping into the bushes at the front of her home on Parkview Avenue, Mrs. Brubeck carefully picks up a bloom in her hands.

“This is the manger with a baby in it,” she said, folding back the creamy petals to show dozens of white threadlike stamens whose tips are dotted with butter yellow pollen, clustered loosely in a delicate cradle.

“This is a star over Bethlehem,” she said, pointing to a long white stalk ending in a starburst at the center of the flower.

Letting the flower return its thick vine, Mrs. Brubeck makes her way out of the bushes. Bozo, a neighbor’s cat, rolled around on the cement walkway, meowing and stretching and watching the flashlight’s beam.

Mrs. Brubeck has been growing Epiphyllum oxypetalum plants since the 1950s and said tending to them and to the other potted oddities in her home is a simple and satisfying hobby. A philodendron in the living room sends a vine up and over the curtain rod; a Hoya in the sunroom drips beads of nectar off its velvety pink flowers, each dotted in the center with a ruby red starburst around the stigma.

“I love plants and I love working with them,” Mrs. Brubeck said. “Seeing them bloom, seeing what they can become, their potential - like a person.”

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