Ranger Kathryn's Arches

September 4, 2010

Beware the Sacred Datura

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kathryn Colestock-Burke @ 6:02 pm
Tags: , , , , , , ,

About-to-open Datura blossom, few minutes before popping

At dusk one July night, Karen and I stood alongside a spreading Datura plant (also called “jimsonweed” — Nightshade family) with sixteen tubular blossoms. Its lay name is Moonflower, as white blooms open at night for pollination by sphinx moths (a.k.a. hawk moths) and bees. Here’s a unique evolutionary strategy to assure pollination:

Spiked narcotic nectar keeps the pollinator inside a blossom longer, thereby enhancing the opportunity for collecting pollen from the anthers and depositing pollen on the stigma. The hawk moth becomes “addicted” to the nectar and thus almost exclusively visits only sacred Datura during its flowering season. These species of hawk moths have been observed arriving early and hovering about the sacred datura flowers at dusk waiting for the blossom to open so that they may get their “fix.”

Curiously, one can predict which flowers will open soon because each one will begin to tremble perceptibly for a few moments before it abruptly widens its trumpet-shaped bloom for the first and only time. With sixteen to watch, we often caught them opening only through our peripheral vision. What a rush of sight and scent. A blast of strong aroma attracts insects the very moment the flower opens. I intended not to smell the bee-occupied blooms, but the insects were drunk on the nectar of these remarkable flowers and cared nothing about me. Even I, a non-bug, couldn’t help putting my face in each new blossom and inhaling deeply.

Note to risk-takers: DO NOT INGEST ANY PART OF THIS PLANT. Its alkyloids are highly toxic and this species has accrued the highest number of “Train Wrecks” — horrible outcomes from people thinking it could be used as a recreational hallucinogen. There aren’t many worse ways to be poisoned than by this plant.

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