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A new home for an old plant

More than century-old night-blooming Cereus known as ‘Queen of the Night’ heading to botanical gardens in Florida

PARTING WAYS — H. Lee Kinney of Wintersville has had this heirloom night-blooming Cereus for 50 years of its more than 100-year existence, but come next month it’s on its way to Florida to the downtown Sarasota campus of the Marie Selby Botanical Gardens. The plant is unattractive for the most part but when it blooms, typically but once a year and only at night, it is a sight to behold, according to Kinney. -- Contributed

WINTERSVILLE — While most people focus their floral attention on mums this time of year, H. Lee Kinney has his thoughts rooted around an Epiphyllum oxypetalum.

Relieved thoughts.

The more than 100-year-old plant that the Wintersville man has lived with for five decades will be heading south next month, finding a new home in Florida at the Marie Selby Botanical Gardens’ downtown Sarasota campus.

It is as delighted to add the once-a-year, night-blooming Cereus to its collection as Kinney is to know the “Queen of the Night” will be properly cared for and appreciated.

After all, that’s been bugging Kinney, a Snow Bird who’s in downsizing mode these days and was contemplating what on Earth to do with it.

“I have a million relatives and friends, but not one — no, not one — wants the responsibility and care of this century-old-plus plant,” he lamented of what’s a member of the cactus family, an unattractive plant without flowers 99 percent of the time.

But the one single night of the year that it does bloom in all its grandeur, typically in June or July, it proves worth the wait to see, smell and savor, not to mention a fine reason to host a “watch party” and let others share in the experience.

“I have lived with the plant 50 years, and it’s bloomed every year but one,” Kinney said, recalling how one year in the early 2000s, there were 30 blooms.

“The bloom is so spectacular I have never, in all those years, lost my excitement and marvel at the intricacies of nature when I look deep into the arrangement of floral parts of this bloom. As I’ve said many times, the plant is unattractive, but, the bloom makes up for all the care. My grandmother McNinch said I was a homely baby, but they took care of me anyway. And I, in turn, have done my best for this aged plant,” he jested.

The bloom has a religious story and appearance, according to Kinney, who explains:

“A tiny bud comes on the edge of any waxy leaf. In a few weeks’ time, the bud grows to the size of a large fist. In the late afternoon of ‘the day,’ finger-like holders around the large bud begin to loosen and by 10:30 p.m., a snow white blossom the size of a large dinner plate hangs from the edge of the leaf in all its glory. The fragrance is sublime. A great number of stamens fan out from the depth of the bloom, making a cradle in the base of the bloom. Some stamens are covered with golden pollen. This gives the distinct appearance of the Christ Child laying in a cradle. Now, overhead hangs a long pistil with finger-like prongs at the end looking very much like the Star of Bethlehem shining down on the child and cradle.”

Kinney is sentimental about the plant, given its history and connection to Richmond, his hometown.

The Marie Selby Botanical Gardens — its mission “to provide bayfront sanctuaries connecting people with air plants of the world, native nature and our regional history” — liked that as well. “It definitely has a great backstory attached to it,” wrote Lisa Wade, its horticulture coordinator, in a June e-mail to Kinney, a retired bank executive and a trustee with the Pugliese Charitable Foundation.

How it came into Kinney’s possession is a story that dates back to the Hohl family.

“The Hohl family had a farm on the edge of Richmond,” Kinney starts the story.

“The mother was Susan (1849-1937), and my grandmother said Mrs. Hohl had this plant before 1900. The Hohls had two daughters — Grace, an RN who served with U.S. Forces in France during World War I, and Annabelle, a homemaker. When the dad and mother died in the mid-1930s, the two girls bought the house at the northeast corner of Main and Green streets in Richmond. With that move came their mother’s night-blooming Cereus.

“Miss Grace Hohl was a fierce United Presbyterian and a devout temperance worker. All the years she was in Richmond, she taught Sunday School in the United Presbyterian Church and weekly came to the school house, making the rounds of every room (then there were 12 grades taught in six rooms). Everyone I knew willingly paid a dime to join the ‘Loyal Temperance Union,’ under Miss Hohl’s guidance and direction, and gladly took a pledge to abstain from strong drink and any form of tobacco.

“To my knowledge, Miss Annabelle kept a beautiful home, garden and lawn, but never left the property. As years went on, the sisters were not in-firmed, although Grace was using a cane walking to church and the school house — they never had a car — when to the surprise of many in the mid- to late 1950s, Grace announced the two of them were moving to a United Presbyterian retirement home in Quarrysville, Pa., near Hershey, Pa.”

What to do with the night-blooming Cereus?

“My grandmother (Nellie Kinney) and Grace were great friends through church and Wednesday evening prayer meeting,” Kinney continued, “so Miss Hohl asked grandma Kinney to take the already aged plant. With her widely well known ‘green thumb,’ grandma was happy to take charge of this rather unattractive succulent cactus for the prize of its spectacular, beyond-words, night bloom,” he continued.

“The plant flourished and doubled in size under the expert care of Nellie Kinney. Grandpap Kinney passed away in 1967, just after my return from serving with the U.S. Army Forces in South Korea. I had saved enough money to qualify for a loan from the Union Savings Bank and Trust Co. in Steubevville, where I had just been hired, and bought the J.B. Irvine house on Walnut Street in Richmond.

“So, grandma and I set up housekeeping with the night-blooming Cereus occupying a large corner of the sunroom October through May and outdoors, under the shade of our grand sugar maple, June through September. Grandma made her way from Earth to heaven on her birthday, Valentines Day 1972.

“The night-blooming Cereus now, because of size and weight, requires two of us to bring it in for the winter and return it to the outdoors for the summer,” noted Kinney, acknowledging that “in very recent years, I’ve been edgy about the long-term care of this living heirloom. My good friend, Jim Higgins, said the answer is a large drink of Clorox!!!!”

With no takers to his home-this-plant-please offers, Kinney tried Plan B.

“I called Phipps Conservatory and was told they never take a plant from the outside to ensure no disease ever enters their plant population,” explained Kinney, who next was referred to the two-member Pittsburgh Cactus Society. No luck.

Then came a blossom of hope as Kinney welcomed an e-mail he received in recent months from a friend in Michigan “who knows I have this Richmond, Ohio, treasure.”

The friend forwarded Kinney a mass e-mail from the Marie Selby Botanical Garden Society in Sarasota, Fla.

“Come tonight, after 9:30, to see the fabulous ‘Queen of the Night’ bloom,'” the e-mail read.

Kinney said while the plant was nothing like his, the bloom looked the same. “The next day, I called Selby Gardens and was connected with a 20-year employee and botanist.”

He shared the story with Lisa Wade, horticulture coordinator. “She gladly agreed to talk with their committee, who decides what plants can come into their plant population. I sent pictures of my plant and bloom, which the Selby folks identified (it’s an Epiphyllum oxypetalum) and then said they would be happy to take the plant. So October the journey will be made to Sarasota, and the plant will have a new, permanent home in ideal year-round conditions with expert care.”

Through the years, Kinney has hosted many “gatherings” or “watch parties” to see the blooms open.

Such occasions have included church friends, neighbors, bank employees, coffee club guys, family, Richmond Community Historical Society members from back in the days of Dwight and Louella Miller, Edith McLaughlin, Mary Dye and others.

“Richmond’s Dorothy Irvine, Eva Blackburn, and Annie Ford always asked Grandma Kinney to give them a call on ‘the night,'” he said, adding that when his grandmother was in her own home, Mildred Hout and her sisters Izetta and Jess came to see the blooms, too.

Kinney is disappointed that family members had no interest in homing the plant and that it will be leaving the Tri-State Area, but looks at the bright side.

“I do my best to be a forward-looking person, so I don’t feel a bit sad about finding this new home for the plant, especially because it’s going to a place where there will always be people (botanical experts) interested in its well-being.”

(Kiaski can be contacted at jkiaski@heraldstaronline.com.)

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