In Praise of the Datura

I love them, the whole genus.

I particularly love the ones I have in my yard. I love the shape of the leaves, and the elegant arching structure of the branches. I love the blue gray color of the foliage against the tan of mulch or brown of soil. And the flowers. Especially the flowers.

As you can see, they are long, exquisite, white trumpets standing up above the foliage, shading ever so delicately to slimmest of purple rims. I stop and stare at them almost every time I go by.

The width and depth of the purple rim seems to vary with the weather. The cooler it is, the more purple there seems to be on the rim.

I love the timing of their bloom season: summer. Most other natives adopt a strategy of shutting down for the summer. Not the daturas, no sir. They soldier on through the aridity growing more leaves and putting out increasing numbers of flowers so that by September a single plant may be 6′ across, 2 ½’ high, and have 25 or 30 flowers open at one time. You gotta love that.

You don’t have to work very hard either for all you get back. No water, ever. No weeding, they are big enough to out compete even the odious bindweed. You do have to deadhead, though, because if you don’t you will soon have hundreds. They will self-seed everywhere. You’ll find seedlings hundreds of feet from the mother plant. Ours have wandered from the front yard where they were planted to both side yards and the backyard. There are even a couple coming up in cracks in the driveway where they get run over by the truck. Almost every flower gets pollinated, and almost every seed that drops germinates. So you do have to stay on top of them.

Pollination is a mystery. I don’t know what does it. The flowers seem designed for moths opening as they do late in the afternoon, and their scent is strongest at dusk. But I have yet to see my first large moth at this place and we’ve been here 7 years. Honeybees do not seem to be attracted to the flowers, neither do hummingbirds (both being creatures of the day) I have seen carpenter bees in them, but only rarely. So perhaps there are moths sneaking in to pollinate them while I’m asleep.

The species that I have growing in my yard is most likely D. inoxia, or a hybrid thereof. All the flowers have 10 points around their edge which, according to Wikipedia, is a defining characteristic. Wikipedia calls this species an annual, but the plants in my yard are perennial. They do reliably come back every year, but I’ve found that they are plagued with cucumber beetles if I leave them in one place for too long. So every third year I pull them all up and start over with a few of the plants that self-seeded.

I suppose I had better say that if you have children or other animals that might be inclined to pull leaves off and stick them in their mouths, you might not want to grow these. All the species I know about contain various alkaloids that are hallucinogenic at low levels and toxic at high levels. The species that actually is native in this part of California and throughout much of the Southwest (D. wrightii) is sometimes called the sacred datura for that reason. Anyway, if you start pulling leaves off and eating them, don’t be surprised if you see God, and then meet your maker soon thereafter.

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Three, Three, Three Yards in One

With its riff on an ancient Wrigley’s gum commercial that really shows my age, the title accurately describes what we’re trying to do here in our own little piece of paradise. In a little less than a third of an acre, we are trying to combine:

  1. A reasonable approximation of a suburban yard. It needs some interest for passers by; strongly perfumed plants to make coming home a pleasure; and some flowers, especially roses, to keep the flower photographer in the family happy.
  2. A food garden that can produce a significant portion of the fruit and vegetables we eat in an organic, sustainable, permaculture, fun, sort of way.
  3. A native plant and wildlife garden that feeds and houses the bees, the birds, the butterflies, the lizards, and anything else that happens to drop by. I keep hoping for moths, but in 7 years I haven’t seen any big ones

This is not easy.

The three kinds of garden do not always play nicely together.

Here in California, the most obvious issue is water. The suburban yard and the food garden require constant water, and lots of it. The native part doesn’t. In fact, summer water will eventually kill oaks and a lot of other plants native to much of California. If you stick around to read this for a while, you’ll hear me talk about water, a lot.

Then there’s the look. Everything’s beautiful in spring, natch. And then it gets gets ugly quickly. As the weather warms up and dries out, native plants, particularly California poppies, calochortus, and other bulbs, first extend, then flop, and then disappear underground leaving ugly skeletons and seedpods waving in the wind; the buckeye even drops its leaves to avoid the coming aridity. All this looks the utter opposite of prim, green, suburban neatness. But this ugly phase is crucial for the birds. They eat the seeds that fall out of those seedheads in their thousands. During the California poppy food fest, I have up to a dozen mourning doves at a time in just the front yard. When the seeds are gone, so are the doves. Like magic. For the rest of the year you only see or hear an occasional one, maybe two, never more. To attract that many doves, I don’t mind letting the poppies and bulbs get seriously ugly.  After the party is over, I clean them up with impunity so the neighbors stop sneering.

Nor do the three kinds of gardeners always play nicely together.

Suburban ornamental gardeners seem to pretend that we don’t eat, and neither does the wildlife. Their yards are full of plants that stand around looking pretty without deigning to feed so much as an ant.

Food gardeners tend to focus of caloric value and ignore aesthetics. They couldn’t care less if a plant is native, or a foreign invasive, as long as it feeds them.

Native gardeners, obviously enough, tend to focus on the nativity of their plants.

To me, the perfect gardener is some combination of all of these characteristics.

  • We (including insects and other animals) do all have to eat. And the closer to home it’s produced the better it tastes, and the cheaper (in terms of transportation, and refrigeration, carbon, and other sometimes invisible costs) it is.
  • It also makes sense to maintain a certain level of neatness and beauty, if only because eyesores affect the property values of entire neighborhoods. We have learned from the recent hard times that property values are important.
  • Native plants support native wildlife, and native wildlife means healthier ecosystems are an all around good. We have learned that from the honeybee crisis.