Ranger Kathryn's Arches

July 2, 2011

Ogling the datura

This google image shows an even larger plant than mine. Caution: Do Not Ingest. Every part of the plant is hallucinogenic, in an extreme ‘bad-trip’ sort of way.

After a potluck with fellow park rangers up at Canyonlands NP, I had casually mentioned that watching the local Sacred Datura plant open its blooms after sunset was a treat they shouldn’t miss. Some eyed me skeptically and held back; others trustingly followed me to the front yard where dozens of 6″ trumpet-shaped white buds awaited their nighttime opening. I had promised a good show.

My credibility began slipping slowly away as the minutes passed. We had gathered around the six-foot-wide plant, sprayed ourselves down with insect repellant, and were waiting patiently… but nothing was happening. Some co-workers eyed me with suspicion. The sun had dropped below the horizon twenty minutes earlier.

Then I saw it. The first of the closed blooms began gently trembling in the still night air. These barely-perceptible vibrations had to come from within the plant, but I have not a clue how. Soon, the arrival of nighttime pollinators — large black bees and hummingbird-sized sphinx moths — indicated that The Grand Opening was near.

Sphinx moth with its amazing proboscis. Google image.

The insects flitted about with a certain frenzy, poised like Wal-Mart shoppers early on Black Friday. The sphinx moths’ wings made a breeze when they got close enough to us, dangling a 5″-long proboscis like a tiny straw; they maneuvered like ace helicopter pilots, positioning themselves directly above the tight blossoms, inserting their mouthparts and drinking with abandon.

Nature geeks all, we each selected our own bud to bet on as the First Opener. The insect activity increased to a fever pitch, and any observer could tell you that something big was imminent. And then — one unlatched. That’s the only word I can use, because the tight pinwheel bud just… let go. It opened in a matter of less than 30 seconds, releasing a rush of intoxicating fragrance akin to that of Easter lilies. Instantly an insect traffic jam ensued, with two bees and two huge sphinx moths jockeying for a position in the bell of the flower.

We high-fived the ranger whose flower won, and proceeded to watch a dozen more tremble for a few minutes and then unlatch. Each opening sent the pollinators into great agitation, and my heart into great delight.

Thirty miles from the nearest town, on a remote mesa in eastern Utah, we make our own fun. The best part? Nobody looks at me as if I’m weird when I stand around and watch flowers open.

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