The Promise of a Flower

The Promise of a Flower
Eudora Welty, 1909-2001. Courtesy of Eudora Welty, LLC and Eudora Welty Collection–Mississippi Department of Archives and History

Eudora Welty’s Night-Blooming Cereus Club

By Jessica Russell

What would incite you to march up, long after nightfall, to the pitch-black porch of a stranger or even a friend, carrying (of all things), a handful of matches? For a 20-something Eudora Welty and her talented band of merrymakers, it simply took the promise of a flower.

Long before becoming a Pulitzer Prize-winning literary icon, Welty and her creative companions of Jackson, Mississippi, entertained themselves as the Night-Blooming Cereus Club. (Their motto was a slightly altered line from a Rudy Vallee song: “Don’t take it cereus, life’s too mysterious.”)

Throughout the Great Depression and the trials of the years to come, their late-night jaunts to see the elusive inflorescence of Epiphyllum oxypetalum enlivened many a small-town night, and those adventures would go on to inspire significant scenes in Welty’s literature—all the while preserving a peculiar Southern tradition that took root at least a century before.

This tradition, of course, is the part social, part horticultural phenomenon in which proud cereus growers would announce an imminent bloom in the newspaper, often in the form of an open invitation for friend and stranger alike to converge on their porch to witness the spectacle late at night. (It is not uncommon for cereus flowers to start blooming around 10 p.m. or later.)

Beyond pure horticultural interest, such occasions made a fine excuse for onlookers to socialize while the flowers slowly opened in the background. In Mississippi newspapers alone, cereus references date back to the 1820s—more than a century before Welty and her young companions, bemused by the tradition and craving a little diversion, made a point of frequently attending these events. By 1934, they would start calling themselves the Night-Blooming Cereus Club.

This was a club that almost wasn’t. Shortly before its formation, Welty’s life, like the lives of all its members, seemed to be moving away from Jackson. Welty began the 1930s earning a graduate degree in business from Columbia University. Life in New York City energized her, and she attempted to make her home there. But as the Depression took hold, she, like so many others, could not find lasting work. All roads led home to Jackson.

Ever bright, creative, and curious, Welty attracted similar company in her hometown. As Susan Haltom and Jane Roy Brown note in their book One Writer’s Garden: Eudora Welty’s Home Place, “Budding writers Frank Lyell, Hubert Creekmore, [future New York Times book review editor] Nash Burger, and the conductor and composer Lehman Engel—all of whom would go on to lead distinguished careers—were among the worldly, artistic friends who gathered on the Weltys’ porch for barbecue dinners and theatrical antics.” Amid the scarcity of financial resources and cultural amenities, Welty later explained, “we made our own entertainments.” Including, of course, scanning the newspaper for cereus-watching invitations.

“A night-blooming cereus opened down the street and had three flowers—we went to see it and looked at it with matches,” Welty wrote a friend in 1943. “Do you remember all the intricate little things inside? The colors too, to be a night flower. It smelled good. The little stamen like a minute replica of the flower, and opens, too, just like it. The lady gave me a cutting started in a pot.” 

Here’s how her friend Creekmore described the gatherings: “We’d sit, mesmerized, as the bud trembled and shuddered while it unwound its long slender white petals and spread them before our incredulous eyes as a delicately incised saucer full of froth.”

Poetic as those words may have been, they failed to mention that the glory quickly faded. As one hostess rather colorfully informed Welty’s club, by morning the flowers would look like “wrung chickens’ necks”—a phrase Welty later used for well-timed comic relief in each of her two fictional scenes that feature a night-blooming cereus. 

Welty’s biographer Suzanne Marrs notes that a night-blooming cereus appears in “crucial episodes” in Welty’s short story “The Wanderers” and her novel Losing Battles. In “The Wanderers,” the “naked, luminous, complicated” flower known for its fleeting life evokes a deep sense of loss in the character Virgie Rainey. Similarly, in Losing Battles, the cereus blooms during a family reunion—a mere novelty for most onlookers, but a troubling omen to Granny, who sees her own mortality in the short-lived bloom. Oblivious to Granny’s concerns, Lexie blurts out, “Yes, and those’ll look like wrung chickens’ necks in the morning. … No thank you.”

By planting the cereus in her fiction, Welty preserved it for her readers through the ages, a feat of increasing significance as the night-blooming cereus fell out of fashion, along with community-wide invitations to watch it bloom. Although a faithful few clubs and enthusiasts still maintain the bloom-watching tradition, today it is more a curiosity than the social craze of the 19th  and 20th centuries. Further, as a public historical figure, Welty’s participation in flower-watching events is well-documented in her letters, biographies, and other sources, including The New York Times—thereby enhancing documentation of the tradition itself. In this way, Welty ensured that the old-fashioned cereus was passed along to new admirers, and not just on the page.

At Welty’s home in Jackson, now a National Historic Landmark maintained by the Mississippi Department of Archives and History, her surrounding Arts and Crafts-era garden has also been restored. The plant collection includes two species of night-blooming cereus: Epiphyllum oxypetalum, also known locally as Queen of the Night, and Epiphyllum hookeri, or Hooker’s orchid. The Eudora Welty House & Garden routinely takes cuttings and passes them on to the community each spring at the annual Heirloom Plant Sale, a Welty garden fundraiser.

Then, as now, the night-blooming cereus is not commonly sold at nurseries, more often shared between friends as a pass-along plant rather than purchased from a store. Indeed, virtually without exception, Jacksonians believe their cereus traces back to Eudora Welty and her Night-Blooming Cereus Club. Though documentation is scant, they’re likely as not to be right; if nothing else, spiritually so.

As long as we continue to pass along this plant, and the stories it inspires, we can be sure the same “naked, luminous, complicated” flower that captivated Welty and her friends in the 1930s, and dazzled admirers across the South for at least a century before, will continue to enchant us for generations to come. Each cutting shared connects us to one another, planting us ever deeper into the Southern social tradition that inspired the Night-Blooming Cereus Club. 


The Cereus, De-Mystified 

It is a widely circulated myth that the cereus blooms only once a year. While individual blossoms last only one night, the plant can flower many times a year.

Cuttings root readily from the flat stems (which resemble leaves), but patience is required to see the first blossom, which may take several years.

Bright, indirect light (as on a covered porch) can encourage bloom, but overwinter indoors in zones cooler than 10 and 11.

Well-drained soil is crucial for this member of the cactus family. Avoid overwatering.

“Night-blooming cereus” is a common name applied to several similar species of cactus primarily native to Mexico and Central and South America.

The primarily pollinator is the sphinx moth, but E. oxypetalum also attracts other nocturnal insects, bats, and even bees who come at first light, before the flower fades.

This hand-colored glass slide depicts a night-blooming cereus in flower. Courtesy of Eudora Welty, LLC and Eudora Welty Collection–Mississippi Department of Archives and History


Jessica Russell is an award-winning copywriter, nonfiction author, and preservation gardener whose love for storytelling and nature led her to the Eudora Welty House & Garden in Jackson, Mississippi—first as a gardener and later, as director. Previously, Russell worked as associate creative director of Godwin, an integrated marketing firm. Russell still writes for brands on a freelance basis, especially those that connect people to nature. She advocates for historic landscapes through volunteer roles with the Southern Garden History Society and the American Public Gardens Association. When she isn’t wielding a pen or a pruner, she is probably hiking in the wrong shoes, pausing occasionally to watercolor the scenes along the way. This story is reprinted from the Fall/Winter 2024 issue of the Southern Garden History Society magazine Magnolia


Epiphyllum oxypetalum. Flower and bud. MAK/Wing Kuen. Creative Commons.