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NATURE HAPPENINGS -September 2009

Datura
by Damian Fagan

There is something mysterious about plants that bloom in the night. Flowers unfurl under the cover of darkness and lure pollinators by their sweet aroma. Shake the bag of desert night-bloomers and you’ll find evening primroses, yuccas, blazing stars, sand verbenas, and one of my September favorites: sacred datura.

Found throughout the Southwest, sacred datura (Datura wrightii), or one of its close relatives, are conspicuous plants often found growing at the base of sandstone cliffs, along roadsides and disturbed sites, or in close proximity to archaeological sites. This closeness to the ancient dwellings is not accidental. Once a cultivated species, Native Americans utilized datura to make poultices or powders made from leaves, roots or flowers for anesthetics.

Also held in high esteem for use in ceremonial activities, hence the “sacred” portion of its name, daturas are a powerful narcotic. Used for inducing visions and connecting with their spiritual world, shamans probably kept the use under control. Unfortunately, sacred datura gets ingested as a modern-day recreational drug, but sometimes with dramatic consequences. Reports of individuals ingesting seeds and losing touch with reality comes from hospital reports. Often the patient has no idea how they sustained broken bones or wounds while under the influence. Mind numbing and body altering.

Like some other members of the Potato Family, datura contains dangerous alkaloids such as atropine, scopolamine, hyoscine, and hyoscyamine, a nerve toxin. Often referred to as “Jimsonweed,” that notable and closely related species grows in the East.

Derived from Jamestown, Virginia, colonists prepared boiled greens of this plant for British troops quartered in their homes during the Bacon Rebellion in 1676. The soldiers spent a few days in “frantick condition…and after eleven days, return’d to themselves again, not remembering any thing that had pass’d,” much to the temporary amusement of the colonists.

Though jimsonweed and datura get a bad reputation from this toxic characteristic, the plant’s inclusion into modern-day xeriscaped gardens is worth the effort. These stout and sometimes sprawling perennials bear large egg-shaped leaves and the floral buds resemble tightly rolled cigars. But the beauty comes when the corollas unfurl under the cover of darkness, spreading wide to lure moonbeams and moths deep into its tunnel-shaped throat.

The ghostly-white flowers may be up to 6 inches long and, when unfurled, have five “teeth” or projections along their tips. Often tinged with purple or lavender on the flower’s margin, this coloration adds to the mystery of the plants. Opening after dusk and closing the next day, the datura flowers attract nighttime pollinators such as sphinx moths, but there may be a variety of wasps and beetles that also visit the sweet-smelling flowers.

After pollination, golf ball-sized seedpod covered with slender spines hang like ornaments on the large plants. The rounded fruits give the plant another common name: Southwestern thorn apple. Bearing numerous seeds, the pods split open at maturity and the wind rattles the seeds loose. The seeds bear a small oily appendage that attracts ants. The ants gather up the seeds and haul them back into their mounds. This seed dispersal by ants is called “myrmecochory.” The ants eat the appendage and discard the seeds, which sprout to form new daturas. One wonders if the ants get a little crazy down under ground.

So as September rolls into the Canyon Country, look for these sprawling daturas that seem more suited for a tropical climate than here in the desert. Take a seat and enjoy the ritual of watching the flowers unravel and open their blooms to the night sky.
 
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