A Moonflower Named Datura

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Above: Photo of Datura seedlings taken today – they are locked inside a bird cage to keep them away from my free -flying dove who loves to eat greens

 

I first grew Datura many years ago after returning from the Arizona desert with seed. One afternoon I was walking in an arroyo and heard a rattling sound. I was startled and Investigated its source. A spiked pod popped open scattering seeds around my feet. I thought this behavior might have been some sort of sign suggesting that I should grow this plant! I gingerly pocketed a few ripe pods and brought them back East in the spring.

 

I planted the seeds in the sun, and a few twin leafed plantlets developed into low growing shrubs that flowered towards the end of the summer. The frost took the flowers and plant before any pods developed.

 

The only thing I knew about wild Datura (Datura stramonium) at the time was that it contained poisonous alkaloids – atropine, scopolamine and hyoscyamine – and that the entire plant was toxic although it had the most beautiful fragrant white trumpet – like flowers whose edges were sometimes tinged in violet.

 

A couple of years later I noticed that seed catalogues began carrying Brugmansia, plants which are closely related to Datura (the former being more tree –like with drooping trumpets that are apparently as fragrant as the bush –like Datura). Both plants can be grown in large pots, and today there are many magnificent cultivars to choose from (although I doubt any develop seed pods). Brugmanisa contains the same alkaloids as its relative. I was intrigued when I first saw these pendulous plants in catalogues but never tried to grow them believing that our season was too short to have flowers develop seed pods because that had been my personal experience. I am a dedicated seed saver, collecting ripe seeds in the fall from year to year.

 

Datura seeds remain viable for at least 20 years or more and if pods are harvested, a few can be planted the next spring and the remainder kept for the future.

 

In March I planted Datura seeds for a second time, this time in the house. I hoped that I could germinate the seeds early enough to produce plants with flowers that formed seed pods. Germinating the seeds was no small undertaking! I placed them in a wet paper towel, inside an open plastic bag and left them in a sunny window. I checked them every day and in about 10 days the first roots appeared. I planted the tiny rootlets in pots.

Currently, I have small plants with true leaves that are watered frequently and have access to strong light all day. In June I will start to acclimate the plants to the outdoors in Maine. Datura is sensitive to frost and I live in a north – facing valley where frost lingers on, sometimes into June. I plan to grow some in a pot and transplant other plants in the ground and see what happens. Obviously, I enjoy experimenting!

 

Datura has many common names besides moonflower. It is also called thornapple, devil’s snare, devilweed, and locoweed. The latter names probably refer to the results of ingesting this plant. Datura produces delirium if it doesn’t kill you. Although Native peoples have learned how to detoxify the plant so it can produce visions, the uninitiated die, so beware.

 

In Ayurveda Datura has been used to treat asthma symptoms. The leaves can be smoked in a pipe. In Ethiopia Datura is apparently used to “open the mind” to being more receptive to learning and creative imaginative thinking. In European medicinal journals there are references to Datura being boiled to treat burns. The Zuni used it as a paste to render a person unconscious so that bones could be set. Many tribes in the Americas – the Cherokee, Algonquin, Navajo, to name a few, use the plant for visioning.

 

It is important to note that the dosage required for visioning is only slightly less toxic than the dose used by sorcerers to kill people. Even more confusing is the fact that some plants contain more toxins than others, even though they may look the same.

 

The Chumash of California call January “the month of Datura” suggesting that Datura was ingested at this time of year because the effects of this perennial plant were less lethal during the winter and perhaps because it was part of some winter ritual.  Like many other tribes, the primary reasons Datura was used by the Chumash was to see into “the true nature of reality” and/or to establish contact with one’s animal/plant guardian(s). The Chumash approached the plant respectfully calling her “Grandmother.”

 

Sources differ on where the plant first originated. Some say Datura is native to this continent, others suggest the origin of this plant is unknown but either way it can be found growing in all parts of the world where the climate is moderate or tropical. The highest concentration of Datura is found in Tunisia, South Africa.

 

Datura prefers rich calcareous soil according to most sources but I think any organic plant mix will work. The Datura that I have seen growing seem to spring up in waste places and dry arroyos in deserts where limestone is present. For this reason I think that I am going to add crushed egg – shells to my plants to help put calcium carbonate into the mix.

 

I only learned recently that if you give Datura half a day of sun it may grow into a bush about five feet tall but this source made a reference to the deserts of the southwest where the sun is very intense during the summer months, so I am going to put my plants in full sun when the time comes.

 

Evidently, the pods can be harvested when they are bright green by cutting the entire bush back, stripping off the leaves and hanging the stalk/seed pods in a warm place to dry. The Datura that I have grown has come from plucking the seed pods when the whole plant is withered and brown.

 

While Datura provides nectar for honeybees, hummingbirds, and other insects in the food chain, it has formed a partnership with the Hawk moth, an insect nearly as large as a human hand. Datura furnishes the moth with nectar as a food source and shelter for its eggs.  The plant serves leafy meals to the moth’s hungry larvae (called tomato hornworms), so much, in fact, that sometimes the plant must draw upon nutrients in its roots to re-grow its leaves after caterpillar foraging. But in return, Datura is pollinated by the moth, and the plant (actually an herb) produces fruits and seeds for another generation. This co- evolutionary relationship between the Hawk moth and Datura is called “mutualism.” ( Scientists find interdependence between plants and animals occurring routinely in nature. The “man against nature” paradigm is outdated). When I researched Hawk moths I learned that my Datura could definitely be pollinated because we have plenty of Hawk moths in the state of Maine.

Scientists also suggest that Datura seeds are eaten by birds that spread the seed through bird droppings, but I couldn’t find a source that mentioned what birds might be carriers or how they managed to deal with seed toxicity. I know that domestic animals can be adversely affected by ingesting the unpleasant smelling leaves of this plant.

 

The white and lavender-tinted, trumpet-shaped blossoms of Datura promise a fairyland of delicate beauty, moths, butterflies, long-tongued bees, hummingbirds and mystical moonlit nights.  It gives rise to some of the plant’s other names, for instance, Angel’s Trumpet, or Belladonna (beautiful lady).

 

The blossoms open at dawn and dusk and are intensely fragrant especially after it rains. During the early afternoon hours the flowers begin to wither from the heat of the sun. I personally find Datura flowers intoxicating, although I treat this plant with deep respect, remembering to wash my hands after I have touched the leaves or collected its pods.

 

An unknown poet has this to say about Datura:

Full moon

Tonight my Datura bush blooms
with thirty-three trumpets.

The moon glides past a tree
spreading its silver glow on open flowers.

Suddenly sacred trumpets fluoresce
and seem brighter than the moon itself…

It is worth growing these plants just to stand beside a flowering clump under a blossoming white moon breathing in their fragrance. Indescribable.

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