Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Stalking the Sacred Datura - or Vice-Versa

Now I think I understand my unusual degree of interest in the plant Datura. It has been stalking me.
Comedian Robins Williams famously has said, “If you remember the '60s, you weren't there.” I actually do remember the sixties. I never doped myself up with the herbaceous, mostly white-flowered poisonous/hallucinogenic plant – or with any other non-prescribed narcotic for that matter. But I did read about its vision-inducing qualities in “The Teachings of Don Juan” – a “must-read” for even the straightest, counter-culture sympathetic, twenty-something in the late 60’s early 70’s. Even the name of the plant, “Sacred Datura” enhanced the mystical ambience of the drug-centric esoterica (fact or fiction?) that author Carlos Castaneda described – way cooler than “Western Jimson weed”, one of its other names, could have.

I think Marsha and I saw the flower for the first time on our trip to the Mediterranean Island of Malta in 1997. The plant grows wild on the main archipelago and its companion isle Gozo and is a different variety – “Datura innoxia” or “Downy Thorn Apple” – than its literary southwestern cousin. Although to this untrained eye the dissimilarities would not have been discernible.

I don’t actually remember seeing the white blooming vine nor could I find any photos – but we must have because it immediately popped into my mind several years ago when I was toying with a fictional novelette about the fictional Men’s Garden Club of Malta and its role in the real Great Siege of that island by the Turks in 1565. In my still-to-be-totally-developed plot the members of the MGCoM repel the invading army and armada of the Ottoman Empire and save the day by creatively using their floricultural smarts. And to make that happen I needed a Hitchcockian McGuffin from the plant world to be the horticultural hero. “Tada!. Datura!” The story is still incomplete – a “deus” sans “ex machina”.

Marsha and I came upon some non-fictional Datura two years ago in coastal North Carolina. We were staying in a beachside condo on Emerald Isle – south of the Outer Banks (SOBX on your bumper sticker).

Every morning at around 7:30 a.m. we walked over to an adjacent convenience market to get the daily newspaper. The grounds of the condo are landscaped with a mixture of southern perennials and annuals along the pathways between the units, and a combination of prickly pear cactus and white trumpet-shaped flowers on squash-like vines along the sides of the driving area.

A few evenings into our getaway I noticed that the large white flowers were still wide open well after dark. Then, one day around 10:00 a.m. I noticed that they were closed up.
Marsha, who had observed all of this strange plant behavior days before, opined that they looked to be a form of Datura. The Carolina species turned out to be a dusk to dawn version of the plant -- sort of a "Deadly Nightshift".

"The Datura, or bush moon plant has six-inch or larger white trumpet flowers that open at night and remain open well into the following day... Keep in mind that all parts of this plant are poisonous." (

Datura, it turns out, are a favorite of the "Night Gardening" movement -- the use of plants that either bloom exclusively at night, or are open during the day but do not release their scent until evening. I shared my discovery with the membership of the real life Men’s Garden Club of Wethersfield, which decided, under the direction of Paul Courchaine, to find a location and plant a nocturnal flowerbed somewhere in town. We did and we did, with the cooperation of a Lucky Lou’s restaurant.

Marsha recognized the North Carolina Datura from those we had seen in New Mexico – more specifically several specimens that were decorating various properties in our daughter-in-law and son’s Santa Fe neighborhood. I think we have also seen them in less domestic locations – along hiking trails and in some long deserted Native American cave dwellings, thinking at the time that they were fruitless plants with squash blossoms.

The southwest variety is, I am reasonably certain, Don Juan’s one. And, it turns out, a genus of the plant that was actually discovered by and named after a native of my hometown of Wethersfield Connecticut. The scientific name is “Datura wrightii” and the honorific commemorates the botanist Charles Wright.

Here is the wiki:

“Charles Wright (October 29, 1811 - August 11, 1885) was an American botanist.
“Wright was born in Wethersfield, Connecticut, the son of James Wright and Mary née Goodrich. He studied classics and mathematics at Yale, and in October 1835 moved to Natchez, Mississippi to tutor a plantation owner's family. His employer's business failed two years later, and he moved to Texas, working as a land surveyor and teacher. During this time he collected plants for Asa Gray. In 1849 he joined an army expedition through Texas, botanising from Galveston to San Antonio and then on to El Paso. In the spring of 1851 he joined the United States and Mexican Boundary Survey. His collections from these two trips form the basis of Gray's Plantae Wrightianae (1852-53).

“Between 1853 and 1856 he took part in the Rodgers-Ringgold North Pacific Exploring and Surveying Expedition, collecting plants in Madeira, Cape Verde, Cape Town, Sydney, Hong Kong, the Bonin Islands, Japan and the western side of the Bering Strait. Wright left the expedition at San Francisco in February 1856 and went south to Nicaragua. His collection of plants from Hong Kong was used by George Bentham for his Flora Hongkongensis (1861).

“Between 1856 to 1867 he led a scientific expedition to Cuba. In 1859 he joined Juan Gundlach in the area around Monteverde, and in the winter of 1861-62 they explored together around Cárdenas.

"He is commemorated in the names of a number of plants, including Datura wrightii, the genus Carlowrightia (wrightworts), and in the name of the Grey Flycatcher Empidonax wrightii.”

100 years later and he might have been one of the original members of the Men’s Garden Club of Wethersfield too. With the fantasy-inducing specimens that he could have brought to the party our initiation ritual would be a lot more noteworthy.

Or maybe he actually did start up such an organization back then. But it was the (18)60s, and no one remembers.

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