In Praise of the Single Flower

Growing up I often worked in the family nursery on weekends or between travel adventures. One of the most common requests I encountered was for shrubs and trees that were long flowering, something that would provide abundant colour overseveral months. To this end I would often point them towards crepe myrtle, salvia, gaura (the butterfly plant), plumbago or roses.

I don’t think I had a single request for plants that flowered rarely.

The rewards of the latter came upon me in a moment of surprised delight a few weeks ago.

Returning from a long stint away from home, I dumped my bags inside and headed straight for the garden. Satisfied that the vegie patch had been well tended and the tomatoes ready to pick, I had almost overlooked the sleepy cactus pots tucked away in a corner when a curious looking protrusion on the side of one plant caught my eye. On closer inspection I found a soft downy bud extending out from between two thorny spikes, the palest of pink on the tips.

Wow, I had never seen this plant flower before, and had no idea what to expect.

The next morning I raced out to check on progress. Overnight the bud had given birth to a magnificent multiple-petaleddaisy-like bloom. Juxtaposed against its spiky parent, the gentle beauty of it was jaw dropping. Over the course of the day, I watched the flower turn its face to follow the sun, the pink deepening as the afternoon waned, as if sun-kissed.

By the next morning, the flower had wilted, and fallen to the earth.

Such a short life! Just one turning of the sun, a lifetime in 24 hours.

To many this might seem dissatisfactory, but the experience changed my perception of the value of a single flower. Even though at the stroke of midnight the cactus had returned back to being a thorny thing in a red squat pot in the corner of my yard, I had witnessed its beauty, and could not forget it. It has stayed with me since, whenever I glance over at it.  It has given me a new respect for the plant, and the mysteries contained within. What sparks the desire and intention for this plant to flower, I wondered. Is it seasonal, temperature or weather driven? Or does it respond to something else unfathomable to me?

Ephemeral flowerers are known to make up for the brevity of their stay by the beauty of their offering. Succulents and cactus are famous for it. The stunning belladonna lilies that are out now make you wait all year for their fortnight of flowering, as do other bulbs such as bluebells and daffodils. I still remember the story a friend told by a campfire one evening of the native Bolwarra tree in her garden, an ancient rainforest species, and how it flowers for just one day a yearduring which time it is pollinated by a tiny weevil.

These plants help us remember the preciousness of every day, and to value the shy and subtle plants in our garden that have so much to offer.