© 1987
Margaret Mee
Her life embraced art, politics, the threatened environment and a quest for a very elusive Amazon flower. Most of all all Margaret was an brilliant story-teller .
The Amazon Moonflower
Journey 15 — to the Rio Negro, Brasil

In Brasil the story is known as
Margaret Mee e a Flor da Lua
'the flower opens for the first time soon after dusk and closes at dawn - then it dies'

The rare cactus is now generally known as Selenicereus wittii. The plant has striking crimson flattened stems that cling to trunks of trees in the flooded forest and has a limited range possibly extending to some Amazon regions of Peru and Colombia

Margaret had seen the cactus on two of her early Amazon journeys but only as the reddened, flattened stems.  Then on another trip in 1982 accompanied by Sue Loram a young British woman who at that time lived in Manaus she found some buds and what seemed to be an opening flower.   "We tried to keep them but they were so wilted they never revived".   To these clues Margaret added places and dates saying at the same time that nobody she had spoken with had known much about the flower.

Margaret agreed that Tony should edit her diaries and set-up a filming project to take her to the Amazon in a search of the flowering.   "It will have to be next year"  she said   "because I need time to recover from my hip operation".   She had just received a second replacement hip during a long visit to England . The delay also allowed for her to divide her notes into 'chapters' and for Tony to discover more about the cactus flowering period. Over the following six months he approached experts in Brasil and around the world.  Margaret knew Bruce Nelson at INPA* the Amazon research institute in Manaus and he provided details of five specimens in the official collection. Reports and advice were culled from other scientists in Britain, Mexico, Sweden, and Germany.  Sue Loram had kept a good account of the flowers she saw in 1982.   Her observations were an essential link as it soon became clear that many botanical details of the flower, its life and rough area of distribution were known but the 'window' for the flowering was not so certain.   One eminent correspondent said he thought  "'it would be very difficult to find it flowering in nature".

The focus of most reports seemed to settle on the Rio Negro where Manaus lies on the northern bank near the confluence with the main Amazon river, the Solimões.   In 1988 Manaus had a population of almost a million and was a major port. The Rio Negro is the major tributary entering from the north and is immense. It is 2080kms long and at Manaus is more than 4kms wide. The annual rise and fall can be as much as 12 meters and the harbour has a famous floating dock built by British engineers in the first decade of the 20th century.  The Negro gets its name from the clear dark water that is totally different to the sediment laden brown of the Solimões coming from the west.   Without nutrients the forest, especially those on sandy soil are not so rich. Some parts are well known for their unique plant diversity and one, the Archipelago of the Anavilhanas the world's largest freshwater archipelago,  is only 8 kms upriver from Manaus

A Challenge in the Flooded Forest

March 1987, Rio de Janeiro, Brasil... Tony Morrison was reading Margaret's diaries with a book and television documentary in mind. He had been following her career for 17 years and had been invited to her house the old suburb of Santa Teresa high above Botafogo Bay.

Margaret had been in Rio de Janeiro since August 1968 and over the years had filled a pile of notebooks with records of her Amazon adventures. Each tale she had was wonderfully descriptive but to become a book or television film the notes needed an ending . Tony asked Margaret to think of her greatest ambition and without hesitation she replied that she wanted to paint the flowering of a rare Strophocactus. The cactus was given its name Strophocactus wittii after a German collector, N.H Witt who late in the 19th century was a trader in Manaus, a city almost 1600kms up the Amazon river. The genus has since been renamed Selenicereus after Selene the ancient Greek personification of the moon as a goddess.

For half the year the river inundates much of the land but when the water level drops as many as 400 islands dot the river. Margaret and Sue Loram had been in the Archipelago of the Anavilhanas in April 1982 when they found buds so that seemed to be the place to start. Also from the point of view of logistics it could not be better as Margaret knew a young Brasilian, Gilberto Castro who had a small rustic house on the river bank. Gilberto also owned a boat that his caretaker or caseiro Paulo used to collect him from Manaus.

Margaret was 78 and with two replacement hips so a short, well timed trip was not only desirable but essential. The basic plan had to be simple. Locate the flower. Check the development of the buds and then take Margaret to the spot for a couple of days.  She was very fit and after fourteen journeys to Amazonia certainly accustomed to the day to day health hazards.

When Tony returned to London he took the idea to the BBC where old colleagues knew of his earlier documentary films. The idea of a midnight flowering coupled with Margaret's long career as an artist produced an immediate and positive response. The fact that the Amazon forests were either burning, being cut down or often both at the same time simply added spice to the story.

The project was given the working title of Margaret Mee's Amazon and a promotional folder of sketches , photos and a written outline was created.  While the idea began to take shape as a televison production Tony was working on the book for Nonesuch Expeditions and plans for the journey.

The archipelago of the Anavilhanas. The green is the forest. The dark blue is the river flowing from right to left across the picture. The green bands are islands of rock and sand divided by huge areas of flooded forest or igapós Gilberto's house is on the riverbank on the right of the picture. The small town of Novo Airão is on the left on the southern bank of the river inlet at the edge of the image -the Igarapé Grande

Suddenly the plan was changed   Early in December 1987 Tony's phone rang at 8.30 am with a personal call from the BBC executive producer saying that the project had been given second thoughts. These were influenced it seems by Margaret's age and the great imponderable - "what was the chance of finding the flower?"   Undeterred Tony talked with a friend in the National Geographic Society, Washington and Steve Burns a producer was sent to Rio de Janeiro to meet Margaret and shoot a test. This attempt also met a dead-end just when time was closing for the small team to confirm arrangements especially for the cameraman / director Brian Sewell who was busy with a different international television company every day. So few choices were available and Tony decided to fund a 'pilot project'  from a television production account he held with his wife Marion and support from Nonesuch Expeditions.

Early in 1988 Tony met with Gilberto Castro in Rio de Janeiro for some quick thinking as there had to be no mistake. No lost chances would ever be forgiven. They concluded that the 'window' had to be sometime after late April and Gilberto arranged that Paulo would make regular trips into the flooded forest and report back to Rio de Janeiro via telephone as soon as the buds began to develop. The difficult bit would be judging how long the development would take. Experts had pointed out that the buds formed on the edges of the stem and grew to form a narrow tube about 12cms long. The flower developed at the end of the tube and opened when triggered by dusk.   Several buds on a single plant could react in different ways and while cultivated hothouse plants were known, there was no telling what would happen in the forest of the Rio Negro

George Clarke MBE [Member of the British Empire] the British Consul in Manaus and a long time friend of Tony's was alerted particularly in the event that medical help was needed for Margaret and the team was put on standby.

The Team
Margaret Mee [left] Amazon traveller with 14 journeys to her credit totalling about three years on Amazonian rivers. and Gilberto Castro, Brasilian businessman and conservationist with a passion for the outdoors. He was a member of a Camel Trophy team.
Gilberto Castro [right] and Tony Morrison, Writer and film-maker. Tony studied Zoology at university and began travelling in South America in 1961. He had already travelled extensively in western Amazonia - in Peru and Bolivia and been far along the Rio Negro and its tributary the Rio Branco. Photo:Brian Sewell / South American Pictures
Margaret Mee [right] and Sue Loram. Originally from Britain Sue first arrived in Manaus via South Africa, Buenos Aires and Rio de Janeiro to INPA [*] Manaus. By 1988 Sue was back in Rio de Janeiro as a partner in a specialist restaurant
Margaret Mee [left] and Sally Duchess of Westminster. Sally Westminster Widow of the Fourth Duke of Westminster had been a friend of Margaret's since the late 1960s. They travelled to the Rio Negro together in 1975
Margaret Mee [right] and Brian Sewell who was from Britain and had made Rio de Janeiro his home. As an immensely experienced cameraman-director he had worked for most of the world's major television companies. Since 1976 he had covered Brasil from end to end.
Paulo Saldanha and his wife Maria. Paulo was Gilberto's caseiro / caretaker at his house beside the Rio Negro. For Paulo the river was his home street. He knew it like the back of his hand

Behind the scenes others helped with communications including George Clarke in Manaus and David Lorimer who was born in Manaus and lived in Santos on the Brasilian coast - another long time friend of Tony and Marion. Marion Morrison in Britain knew all the locations from past travels and controlled the plan from her desk.

The New Plan  "We will fly everyone from Rio de Janeiro to Manaus a city of almost a million. That's four hours in the air. Then they stay overnight or perhaps two in a simple hotel. Then using Gilberto's boat they will travel up the Negro to the house. That's about a nine hour journey and we can make Margaret comfortable in a hammock. The accommodation at the house is simple. Hammocks, mosquito nets, a bottled gas cooker, a toilet and there is even a shower heated by solar energy. But they will be out of touch. There's no 'phone or two-way radio. A couple of smaller and faster boats will be needed for searching the igapos"..

All the expenses together with some special fees for the team apart from Sally Westminster's air fares were covered by the project budget. Now all that was needed was to confirm the important date. Flights were booked and second and some third fall back reservations were made. Early in the year Paulo made a list of trees where he had seen plants and towards the end of April he went to investigate. In mid April he reported to Gilberto that the buds were almost fully developed. As it had taken him a day to search and another day to get to a 'phone in Manaus it seemed that the Plan was 'on'.

Gilberto took a flight to Manaus to prepare the boat and stores. Sally Westminster arrived in Rio de Janeiro on an overnight flight direct from London and was met at Galeão the international airport by Sue and Margaret. They had time for a quick cafezinho - small sweet coffee before getting the first flight of the day to Manaus. They were met at the airport by Gilberto and George Clarke. Tony and Brian who had been filming in Rio followed on yet another flight with all the camera gear. In Manaus the team stayed in the Hotel Imperial not far from the extraordinary Teatro Amazonas a relic of the 19th century 'rubber boom'. As they settled in the hotel more news came in about the flowers. The buds were growing quickly and Gilberto set the departure time for 9.15 the next day. The final plans were laid over a supper at one of George Clarke's favourite restaurants, La Barca on the outskirts of the city. La Barca specialised in Amazon river fish and was a popular place. The team was introduced to George's wife and Bruce Nelson a long time friend of Margaret and Sue. Tropical rain rattled on the roof for most of the meal and the party returned to the hotel at 10.30 and after a deciding about the plans for the morning everyone except Tony and Margaret headed for some rest.   "It just has to be be right this time... it just has to be....". They chatted long into the night.

Departure at last Gilberto and Paulo had prepared the boat the day before and all that was remained to be done was some last minute buying in the market. Sue had a secret recipe she intended to try as a celebration  'if the search is successful' she promised

Margaret Mee and Sue Loram look back to Manaus as the boat heads upriverThe team leaves the hotel. Gilberto Castro is by the door of the VW microvan and Sue Loram is on the right
 The nine hour river journey to the house was passed reading, sleeping and talking
The search Paulo had located several trees with the cactus spread on the trunks. The first day began with rain that cleared by 8.30am. The first tree had a plant without flowers, but two more about 45 minutes away from the house had one opened, one wilted flower and two close to opening. Now the question was how many days to opening. One, two or three days was the best guess from the scientific data they had been given so while looking for more plants the decision was taken to try again in 24 hours time. Back at the house Sue was in charge of the kitchen and Sally Westminster took over the chores including washing the dishes. Supper was pacu a local river fish cooked in coconut milk, one of Sue's specialities.
Gilberto Castro and Margaret Mee are followed by his friends Alfredo and Gloria Norris. They helped on the first day of the search
The first plant found by Paulo Saldanha was too high above the water level. The crimson flattened stems were at least 10 feet 3 m above the water. Photo: Brian Sewell for South American Pictures
Sally Westminster[behind], Sue Loram and Margaret Mee find buds in the shade of one of the igapós - the flooded forest
Margaret Mee takes a close look at some buds but they were tightly closed and the place was dark
The only plant with good light and close to a main waterway / parana was still too high for Margaret Mee to see clearly. Gilberto's boat was used as a floating studio and he lifted Margaret to the roof so she could sketch. While travelling great care had to be taken not to spill food, oil or any other contaminents in the water Photo Brian Sewell / South American Pictures
Margaret Mee standing on the roof looks at the buds to try and select the area she would record in her sketchbook
From a garden chair and with a sketchbook on resting on knee Margaret made meticulous notes of the shape and colour of the plant
The painting Twenty four hours later the boat was loaded with enough food for a couple of days, some blankets and all the film gear. Forty five minutes later and the team was alongside the tree and prepared for dusk. The daylight to dusk change was tropically quick and just as dramatically the flower began to open. The team crowded on to the roof of the boat totally spellbound. The white to pale yellow perianth leaves looking like petals unfurled and one or two seemed to 'click' as they gained freedom. As the filming lights were turned on and Margaret began sketching the flower stopped opening. The light had interrupted the mechanism so lower powered hand held battery lights were tried and the flower continued to open. It was more difficult for Brian but Margaret could see her sketchpad. The light from an almost full moon helped everyone to move around.
Margaret Mee sketched the opening flower by the light of hand held torches
All the stages of the opening and closing were sketched. Details of the colours had to wait until daylight
By midnight the flower was fully open
Sue Loram and Gilberto Castro are entranced
The flower had wilted and all she needed were the colours of the flattened stems and details of the the unopened buds
Brian filmed Margaret Mee while she sketched the plant in daylight.
The sketch was made 'by eye' and Margaret had the technical skill to keep the proportions exact. The plants was not touched, measured or handled in any way
After making the outline Margaret Mee then used water based colour to match the shades of the plant. Once again she had perfected the skill to use her 'eye' for comparing the delicate tones


Margaret sketched through the night She finished work at 3am but none of the team had any sleep. The dawn was coming. With the light the perianth leaves began to close and by 8am the flower had wilted. The flower had lived up to its name of Selenicereus.

The Moonflower is named On the return journey from the final painting trip Tony, Margaret and Sally chatted about the book and the cover. A deadline loomed for the book and it was decided that Tony would write the story as Journey Fifteen in Margaret's style while she painted the artwork for the cover . They decided that the painting needed certain elements:  the flower, the forest and the moon.  These elements had to be set within the page to allow for space for the title.   "You must call it  'The Moonflower'" said Sally.  "It's the only title. Especially after last night". WATCH THE VIDEO

After some discussion about other night flowering cacti the title became 'In Search of the Amazon Moonflower' and the final artwork was left in Margaret's hands.

So success at last. Back at the house it was time for champagne and the special treat made by Sue from cupuaçu a delicious tropical fruit she had 'smuggled' aboard from the market in Manaus . "I knew we would have something to celebrate."   It was close to Margaret's 79th birthday. The next day the team began to go their separate ways.   Margaret, Sue and Sally remained at the house for a few days more perhaps accepting that it could be their last visit.

Brian Sewell waves a goodbye to Margaret, Sue and Sally Westminster

Paulo took Gilberto, Tony and Brian to Manaus. They arrived in the port at 10pm and Brian caught the first flight to Rio de Janeiro. Tony took a midnight flight to São Paulo from where messages about the success were sent around the world. Sue Loram, Margaret and Sally Westminster stayed a couple of extra days at Gilberto's house. They visited the nearby igapós and Sue and Margaret paddled a small canoe to the place where they had found a Selenicereus / 'Moonflower' cactus six years earlier.

Sally Westminster had to return to London and Margaret and Sue wanted to spend a few more days in the forest. The three friends asked Paulo to take them downriver to Manuas where Sally could catch a flight, firstly to Brasilia the capital to stay overnight with the British Ambassador and his wife before heading for home via Rio de Janeiro. Sue, Margaret and Paulo went back to the port and began their journey upstream


Back in Rio de Janeiro By lucky coincidence Sally Westminster arrived from Brasilia at Rio's Galeão International Airport as Tony was leaving for London. They had time for a cafezinho - coffee and brief swap of memories. Margaret and Sue arrived a few days later and went their separate ways to work. Margaret with Greville working on the composition began a rough sketch for the cover of the book. The placing of the flowers, the moon and water had to allow for the title and credits. Greville with his experience as a commercial artist knew exactly what was required. The 'rough' was sent to Tony for approval before Margaret began work on the painting but all was well. The composition was just as they had planned and Margaret began the final painting in June.

Margaret finished the Moonflower in her studio in Rio de Janeiro and it was carried by hand to London and arrived on July 5th.


The Amazon Moonflower

The rough sketch, unsigned, on Fabriano 2 paper

June 1988

Presented by courtesy of Nonesuch Expeditions and South American Pictures

The book In Search of Flowers of the Amazon Forests was published in November 1988. The Amazon Moonflower was dropped as a title and cover in favour of one of Margaret's classic paintings. Sally Westminster was indignant. "The title and the magic of that moment will never be repeated".

Tony edited the book and wrote the linking notes as well as the biographical introduction ' Before the Amazon' . Using her style and with her approval he wrote Journey Fifteen - The Moonflower.

Margaret died in a car accident in England only two weeks after the book was published and her memory lives on with the goodwill to fund scholars and research. The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew near London maintain a Margaret Mee Fellowship office. In Rio de Janeiro there is a Society of Friends of Margaret Mee and occasionally it runs a memorial journey to Anavilhanas.

Brasil 1989 - A year after her death
Em busca das Flores da Floresta Amazônica
A Portuguese translation of the original book published in Rio de Janeiro by Salamandra Consultoria Editorial S/A. The Moonflower is featured on the jacket cover

* INPA Instituto Nacional de Pesquisas da Amazônia - Brasil's famed National Institute of Amazon Research, Manaus

FBMM Fundação Botânica Margaret Mee, The Margaret Mee Foundation, Rio de Janeiro [1988-2008] now the Society of Friends of Margaret Mee] 

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