Sacred Datura is indigenous to the Mojave Desert. Its beauty and lore has lured both Native Americans and naïve teenagers to try its hallucinogenic powers for the coveted mind trip. According to Livestock: Poisonous Plants of Arizona, the results of consuming the plant “are similar among humans and animals. They include intense thirst, distorted vision, uncoordinated movement, high temperature, a rapid and weakened heartbeat, convulsions, coma, and death.” That’s why I planted it in my front yard.
My backyard has been fodder for children as they’ve made colorful, if unappetizing, concoctions of plant materials picked from my landscape, imagining themselves pioneers living off the land or potion-making-sorcerers. Two-year-old Diana would often present herself at my studio door, open to the backyard where she was free to come and go, with a mud mustache—akin to a milk mustache. Since she was happily self-occupied, I concluded it was good for her immune system. At four she purported to be able to subsist on acorns. I researched this and found that, in fact, she could. If it weren’t for the bitter tannin, they would indeed be a nutritious source of flour when ground. In the fall, our yard is littered with the largest acorns in North America falling from their mother Burr Oak. Diana is adept at eating pomegranates. From the nineteen trees in our backyard and without ever using a utensil, she would crack and eat a half-dozen by simply banging the fruit on a stray cinderblock. Her mud mustache stained crimson, as did her fingers and clothes.
Diana is the fourth in a line of equally imaginative and resourceful daughters who invariably taught her their trade. This all happens in my backyard, with an iron gate guarding their escape. So, the Sacred Datura is a strategically placed ornamental gracing my front yard.
I first saw a Sacred Datura on my early morning walk around the neighborhood. I was struck by its huge white trumpet-shaped blooms the size of my face wilting with the heat of the day. It’s understandably been dubbed Angel’s Trumpet, Moon Lily, Moon Flower, and Belladonna (beautiful lady).
Perhaps this flower was the muse for renowned painter Georgia O’Keeffe when she said, “When you take a flower in your hand and really look at it, it’s your world for the moment.” It begins as a tight-shut parasol, unfurling to feed moths, butterflies, long-tongued bees, and hummingbirds in the early morning hours before it expires with the heat of the day. I didn’t know then that these glow-in-the-dark blooms opened only to moonshine, existing truly for but a moment in the world.
I had also seen it en route to Yosemite National Park while sardined into a van full of noisy children undulating over the desert roller-coaster highway intersecting Death Valley. Sitting in the front passenger seat with nose mashed to my side window, I was transfixed by the glowing blooms and transported to a more tranquil, resplendent place than that van at that minute. In retrospect, I was drugged, intoxicated and addicted.
At first, my plan for acquisition was simply to saunter past my anonymous neighbor’s cul-de-sac yard, snip a bit of Moon Flower, pocket it, and continue on. It was a big bush and no one would miss six inches. Being the certified Master Gardener that I am, I intended to dip the broken end in a bit of horticultural hormone and command it to root, then plant the clone in my own yard.
On my first attempt to appropriate the genetic material, I was a little taken aback by its fibrous, spiny thistle-like stalk which fought to be broken. My bare fingers were the worse for wear. But once I had it in hand I was committed to the theft. Tenaciously, I picked and pocketed it. But the tip rotted without taking root and I had to repeat my offense. My second effort yielded no better than my first.
As any true junkie, I was determined to get my hands on my own Moon Flower, no matter what the cost. So I searched through Annie’s Annuals and Perennials catalogue, which specialized in rare and unusual plants, including cottage garden heirlooms and hard-to-find California native wildflowers. Surely, if anyone had my plant, Annie did! There it was: Datura wrightii. The catalogue promised dramatic, bold, blue-green leaves on a compact three-foot-across mound topped with marvelously huge, upright, pearly white, sweetly fragrant trumpets eight inches across blooming from late spring to fall, tolerant of poor soil and harsh conditions. Perfect. It arrived at my door just days later, looking like a tiny, limp hatchling. I planted it.
The first season I don’t recall a single bloom, but I do remember the ravaged, ragged leaves of that supposed three-foot-round mound and my immense disappointment. In actuality, my Belladona was just about a foot across before it winter-killed. Spring resurrected the plant with a few small blooms as reward, but again its foliage was worm-eaten and never lived up to its sales pitch. Frankly, I expected it to die. My neighbors, from whom I had kidnapped a cutting, had long since pulled theirs out—mine was the last chance for the neighborhood. So, when the first green shoots of early spring surfaced in the third year, I determined to do battle with whatever intrepid pest was skeletonizing Belladonna. I dusted Seven (Carbaryl Insecticide) over the leaves and left it to its own devices.
Free of pests, the plant rebounded and lived up to its reputation, evidenced by a steady stream of plate-sized blooms. For three years running now, when I leave my house before sunrise from spring through fall, I am moved by the striking white blooms standing sentry at the edge of my driveway and the breaking day.
It is usually by bicycle that I leave my home this early. Why else would I, a sleep aficionado, awake before dawn except for a bike ride? Perhaps to see the Moon Flower? And, of course, the sunrise. I pedal fifteen miles uphill to the River Mountains Trail running from old Henderson up through Bootleg Canyon, past the Veterans Home and into Lake Mead National Park. At this point, my peripheral vision includes Moon Flower, spotlighted by the sunrise, illuminating its blooms like individual lightbulbs and causing me to wonder if they’re actually the real source of the bright white light instead of the sun. I ride on, noticing more Angel’s Trumpet. More Belladonna. More Sacred Datura. More Jimpson Weed.
The last name caught me off guard when I first heard it, too. Weed?! I thought, How dare they?According to my Master Gardening instructors, a weed is defined as a plant growing in an unwanted place—any plant, whether a rose or a dandelion.
All around me, the ground of the desert seemed barren with only sparse cactus and seasonal annuals and perennials each eking out their existence in the harsh ecology. The self-sufficient Sacred Datura was lush in comparison to its peers and certainly easy on the eye. It was anything but unwanted. Weed my foot! Who was this Jimpson, anyway? Certainly not an O’Keeffe! Perhaps Jimpson had cattle prone to eat it. Perhaps Jimpson had experimental teenagers. Perhaps Jimpson smoked it himself.
This native plant had escaped my eye in the wild. It wasn’t until I saw it next to a concrete sidewalk aside an asphalt road in the morning shadows of a stucco house that it caught my attention. I was oblivious to it, even though it was indigenous and common. Not until the stark contrast between the black and white underscored it, making it shout HELLO! did my eye register it. It was definitely an interloper, looking untamed tucked into its intentional homogeneous quarried rock bed devoid of anything else native. But now that I had discovered it, recognized and even named it, I saw it everywhere—in culverts, across the highway, on a hill or next to the lake. I thrilled to know it hadn’t come from Annie’s but was self-made, a pioneer, an astronaut, an inventor. I loved mine all the more.
Even in the wild it thrives. Unwatered and unfertilized, it gets four times bigger than mine—even with the Desert Tortoise on the prowl. I’m guessing the tortoise eats Sacred Datura simply because it can, and what else is there to eat out there, anyway? But according to that Livestock book, maybe not. I haven’t happened upon a turtle freaking out on Jimpson Weed—ever. What would a trippin’ turtle look like? Would it walk faster, maybe run? Then how do the hummingbirds do it? The moths and butterflies and long-tongued bees? I read that moths who feed upon the nectar become poisonous themselves, thus avoiding predators. Just how does this selective osmosis occur? I did read that consuming Sacred Datura could make you want to fly, so maybe it’s a plus for the winged feeders, like pixie dust. Maybe all nature has been supping from Sacred Datura all along, getting its groove on, while I’ve been living in slow motion unawares.
Benjamin Franklin was sent some Sacred Datura by a botanist friend out west, bragging up its psychoactive properties. He expressed concern for planting it anywhere children could access it but tried some for himself. His housekeeper reported finding Franklin in a prone position with his slippers precariously dangling. That’s all she wrote. I always figured Franklin for being brighter than that story lets on. Maybe Franklin’s genius can be traced to Moon Flower. The possibilities are tempting.
My Belladonna has a bubbler at its base and Seven for protection. I would indeed like my Jimpson Weed to thrive, take hold, and, against—all odds—GROW! Grow and glow like those in the desert I finally saw at the dawn of day. But mine must suffice. Everything left wild thrives and grows bigger, it seems—cobwebs, waistlines, dreadlocks, bank accounts, and children. It is sometimes the owning, the planting and fixing of the thing that binds, limits and constrains it—not letting it expand to its scope of possibility. I must keep going to the desert—to the wild places. The untamed and unnamed are there waiting to be discovered.