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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