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.

September 4, 2010

Beware the Sacred Datura

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