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.

Emergence: Poem to a Plant Goddess

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Her name is Datura.

Delicate fluted deep-throated trumpets open to

hungry honey bees and summer rains.

She communicates through scent.

 

In the fall I collect her sharp-needled pods.

They rattle like dry bones.

I chill them.

In the spring I coax seeds to sprout

wrapping each in papery white cloth,

sing love songs – siren calls

to rouse each root from winter’s sleep.

 

I am patient…

a woman in waiting for the heat of the sun

and the mystery of becoming

that is re-acted in spring.

Only seeds know when to swell and burst.

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Wooly hairs branch out from a single root.

Curling themselves into screw like shapes,

They leave it to me to untangle head from foot!

 

I hear the Old Ones call her Sacred

West wind whips red sand into my face,

as I place each sprout in well dampened soil.

 

Within a week green wings unfold

– twin leafed plantlets

lean into the fierce light of a golden eye.

 

Each seedling seeks its own form.

DNA meets the pattern of becoming

held by cosmic forces in a spiral round.

 

I imagine a bush of sensuous pearl white trumpets

– lacy lavender tipped edges unfurling at dusk.

Datura converses with the Hawk moth under a blossoming moon.

 

An ancient plant with unknown origins

Datura bridges continents,

passed on by Indigenous story and feet.

A muse full of secrets

she is known by those

(who have been initiated into her ways)

as “Grandmother,” whose poison is deadly.

She is also a visionary and healer.

 

She comes to some through dreams.

The un- initiated fear her.

 

They call her devil, thorn apple,

witches wildflower, in woeful ignorance

of the breadth of her power.

 

“Dementia!” they sling arrows of ignorance,

accuse her as one who would kill or maim.

 

As well she might.

 

To those who would use her

without respect or care,

she mutters a warning:

Beware.

 

Working Notes:

Datura flowers are startling, huge, trumpet shaped – pearl white and luminous, tinted with pale to deep lavender around the edges – and in northern Mexico, intensely fragrant after rain. Last summer, like the bees that hummed around the flowers from dawn to dusk, I too couldn’t get enough of the sweet scent of literally hundreds of undulating lace edged trumpets that opened each morning or evening after a rain. These wild plants are also known as devil’s trumpet, moonflowers, devil’s weed and thorn apple.

 

Late last fall I collected prickly seed pods and stored them over the winter. This spring I coaxed seeds to sprout, planting them here and there, imagining a summer desert filled with clumps of fragrant blossoms.

 

Datura has the ability to shapeshift – literally. Depending upon growing conditions this plant can develop into a large four or five foot bush, or spread its small umbrella of pointed leaves and flowers over a dry desert wash, barely reaching twelve inches in height. The plant can change its shape as well as the amount of its toxicity which confused botanists for years!

 

In service to Life Datura removes lead from the soil and stores it in her roots and leaves. While the plant provides nectar for bees and other insectivores it forms an intimate partnership (mutualism) with the Hawk moth, an insect almost as large as the human hand. Datura furnishes the moth with nectar and shelters its eggs (newly hatched larvae are served a tasty leafy meal by this mothering plant). But in return pollen is transferred from moth to flower enabling fertilization to take place. With the help of the moth, Datura can then produce fruit and seeds for another year.

 

Datura belongs to the classic “witches weeds” according to Wikipedia, along with deadly nightshade, henbane, mandrake, hemlock and other toxic plants. “It was well known as an essential ingredient of potions and witches brews,” according to this  source.

 

Indigenous peoples across the globe have been using this plant for millennia to seek spirit helpers through visioning. All parts of this plant are lethal and only those that are initiated through the (secret) oral traditions know how to neutralize the poison.

Witches in the Weeds

There she is in flight,

a shooting star on fire.

There she spirals eyeless

her blue wind births chaos.

There she moans bitterly

churning up dark waters.

There she plows fiercely

heaving up  mountains.

Her Datura pods explode,

broadcasting black seeds ..

Fire, Air, Earth and Water –

Old women stir the cauldron.

Shapeshifting into birds

they stalk fish in every marsh.

Black crowned night herons?

Owls with second sight?

Ah, these are the women with wings…

soaring through the night.

Listen to the reeds applauding.

Brown Cattails are humming.

Bitterns sing love songs to

Witches in the Weeds!

Working Notes:

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In folklore Old women are believed to control all aspects of Nature – Fire, Earth, Air and Water, but in myth and story they have a special relationship with water.

The title and poem “witches in the weeds” emerged after I did some research on the Datura plant. This plant is usually associated with old women and sorcery in myth and story. For example, in European mythology, the dark goddesses, Hecate, and Baba Yaga are associated with Datura. Datura is considered to be a ‘witch weed’ and is categorized as a poison along with deadly nightshade, henbane and mandrake. The seeds and flowers have a history of creating visions, delirious states, and causing death. Datura thrives in wilderness areas. Old women, dark goddesses and Datura have a lot in common.

Women and birds have been associated since Neolithic times so it seemed natural to use them in the poem. Scholar and mytho- archeologist Marija Gimbutas unearthed many bird-women sculptures that were fashioned out of clay in “Old Europe”. Old women in particular are most often associated with owls, herons, crows, ravens, and black birds of all kinds. It is probably the relationship between women and birds that is one of the roots behind the belief that old women can fly. The other root behind flight can probably be found in the relationship between women healers and the plants they used. Plants like Datura  contain alkaloid properties (scopolamine, hyoscyamine, and atropine) that are capable of producing visions of flight and are used by folk healers and medicine women and men.

The reference to marshes in the poem is important because it is in liminal space – that place between earth and water – that lends itself to transformations of any kind. Goddesses like Hecate inhabit such places, and with good reason because “transformation” requires suffering and death to old ways of being. It’s important to have a Guide.

According to Wikipedia, Datura “was known as an essential ingredient of potions and witches’ brews.” Since there is no such entity as a witch, I was surprised to see the above sentence in print on a research site. The word witch was first coined by the King James version of the Bible which appeared in the 1600’s. A women’s holocaust occurred in Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries when thousands, perhaps a few million rural women of all ages were burned as witches. In a nutshell, women have been healers since ancient times. When men became “doctors” they took over the role of healer from women, and conveniently dispensed with the latter by burning them alive.

Whenever I see the word witch I stop to consider the context because inevitably the word is associated with older or old women who have power. Women healers were naturalists who observed, experimented with plants to learn about their medicinal properties, and used these herbs to heal, to birth a child, to abort an unwanted fetus, and to help humans die peacefully at the end of life. It takes a lifetime to acquire the necessary skills, so younger female healers were usually apprenticed to their elders and their secrets passed from one generation to another.

Patriarchy continues to dismiss women as needing equal rights, including the right to end life if it becomes necessary. Our need to have sovereignty over own own bodies is a threat to this system of oppression. We are rejected as folk healers, and as leaders out of fear. If we dare to speak out we become witches, bitches, or nasty old women. We are irrational and emotional, unpredictable, incapable of making sound decisions due to our biology according to this Patriarchal story. We are also a genuine threat because as thinking/feeling women we can reject the either or/black or white perspective of Patriarchy and seek “both and” solutions. We are capable of thinking with both parts of our brain, and have access to Nature’s secrets because we can develop intimate relationships with plants (and animals). Many women recognize that we are a part of nature and can choose to advocate for the Earth understanding that to do so is also to advocate for all life on this planet. We can choose not to separate the parts from the whole. Women and the Datura plant belong together because both are potential visionaries.

Datura flowers are startling, huge, trumpet shaped – pearl white and luminous, tinted with pale to deep lavender around the edges – and in northern Mexico, intensely fragrant after rain. Last summer, like the bees that hummed around the flowers from dawn to dusk, I too couldn’t get enough of the sweet scent of literally hundreds of undulating lace edged trumpets that opened each day. These plants are also known as devil’s trumpet, moonflowers, devil’s weed and thorn apple. Datura plants also are capable of removing lead from the soil and storing it in their roots and leaves. While the plant provides nectar to several creatures in the desert food chain it has formed a partnership (mutualism) with the Hawk moth, an insect almost as large as the human hand. The Datura furnishes the moth with nectar as a food source and a shelter for its eggs. The newly hatched larvae are served a tasty leafy meal by the plant. In return Datura are pollinated. The plants’ male pollen is transferred by the moth to the female flower parts, enabling fertilization to take place. The Datura can then produce fruit and seeds for another generation.

The seeds of Sacred Datura are used by Native peoples like the Navajo to bring on visions during ceremony. It’s important to understand that Indigenous peoples who use this plant for visioning also have learned how to detoxify it (as women healers have) and are not sharing this information with outsiders. Overall, Datura species are considered to be highly poisonous; even bees that drink the nectar of the flowers can produce honey that is deadly. All parts of the plant are poisonous but especially the flowers and seeds.

The plants’ precise and natural distribution is uncertain owing to its extensive cultivation and naturalization throughout the temperate and tropical regions of the globe. It’s distribution within the Americas and North Africa is most likely restricted to the Southwest regions of the United States and Mexico in North America, and Tunisia in Africa where the highest species diversity occurs. (Brugmansia, a South American cousin with similar properties differs from Datura in that it is woody, reaches the size of small trees and has pendulous trumpets).

Strangely, all nine Datura species can also change the size of their individual plants, leaves and flowers! The plants’ size, shape etc. apparently depends upon the location of the plant. I find the correspondence between the plant’s ability to create visions or to poison, and it’s physical ability to change its shape, color, size, leaves, depending on location fascinating. It’s as if the plant is advertising its literal ability to shapeshift, to alter its identity in the wild where it can thrive even as a weed. This kind of co-creating between plant and (powers of) place is probably much more common than we realize.

We are fast approaching the end of October. All Hallows and the Feast of the Dead occur over a period of three days beginning October 31 on All Hallows Eve, and ending on All Souls Day, November 2nd. In the United States this honoring of the dead has been distorted becoming Halloween, when children dress in costumes and go trick or treating, but retain the fear of old women as “witches” flying through the night with their familiars.

In contrast, European and Earth based religions honor this three – day period as Feast of the Dead, All Saints Day and All Soul’s day. We begin by honoring the dead through prayer. On the latter two days we can choose to make contact with the deceased – saints and family – because “the veil is so thin.” It is at this time that we can call upon those who have gone before us to pray for us, or guide us…In some earth based (Celtic) and most Indigenous traditions we also acknowledge that this feast marks the end of the calendar year…For the next few weeks we live in the “space in between” until the advent of the new year which begins at Winter Solstice.

This year the Presidential election occurs on November 8th five days after this festival ends. If ever there was a time to celebrate “witches” as women of power it is now. We need to gather together with all the other “nasty women” and support Hillary Clinton by getting out to vote for her. Then we can pick up our prickly Datura pods and soar away into the night on the broomsticks that our distorted cultural story has provided for us!

IMG_2742.JPGPostscript: I want to make it clear that I know a number caring men with great integrity who do not support Patriarchy in its death throes (just as I know many women who do). This country is fortunate to have many such men all of whom will be casting their vote for Hillary Clinton as next President of the United States. We need to acknowledge how critical their support is and how much courage it takes for a man to go against a culture that strives for power over at the cost of losing access to genuine feeling.