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Flora: A flower of the night

Photo by Ken Moore. Jimson weed flower opens in the late afternoon and continues through the night.
This time of year is beautiful beyond description. I’m challenged to focus on a single plant.

A morning glory, Ipomoea purpurea, is scrambling over a cultivated coastal beauty-berry, Callicarpa americana. The vine’s pale purple flowers call attention to the iridescent purple-pink berries of the shrub. The tall burgundy-and-green-colored pokeweed, Phytolacca americana, towering over golden-yellow plumes of common goldenrod, Solidago altissima, make me thankful that I did not pull them earlier in the summer. On the deck, several volunteer bur marigolds, Bidens aristosa, in pots of peppers and tomatoes, stand head high with hundreds of bright yellow daisy-like flowers. The still vigorously flowering near-by scarlet-red coral honeysuckle, Lonicera sempervirens, helps sustain lingering hummingbirds. The engaging beauty of all this wild floral extravagance is my reward for encouraging nature’s impulses.

In a grassy pathway is one of my favorite volunteers, the poisonous annual jimson weed, Datura stramonium. Unlike the various garden varieties of angel trumpets, all of which are poisonous, the native datura has a smaller flower, only three-to-four inches long, angled upward in the axils of sturdy branches on a three-to-six-foot-tall plant. It seems more a small shrub than a tall annual. Each ghostly white, trumpet-shaped flower sometimes bears an intriguing purple center. It opens in the early evening to be pollinated by any of several night-flying insects searching for pale-colored flowers.

The flower’s mysterious musty scent is somewhat captivating.

Though poisonous, the plant has a rich medicinal heritage. Quoting Jim Duke (Handbook of Northeastern Indian Medicinal Plants): “In Virginia, Algonquin fed male pubic initiates tea made from Datura, enough to keep them drugged for two to three weeks. Such initiates were supposed to forget everything and learn again, as men, not boys.”

Apparently Captain John Smith’s followers at Jamestown tried this native custom, resulting in lengthy non-productive stupors. It became known as loco weed and Jamestown weed. As often happens, names change as they are handed down through the years. Jamestown weed became jimson weed.

I am amused with Paul Green’s recollection (Paul Green’s Plant Book): “We children used to have great fun in the dusk of warm summer evenings chasing after great tobacco moths that haunted the strong scented blooms of the jimson weed. I read in an old book once where it said that harem wives in Turkey were wont to chew this weed and swallow the juice to strengthen their powers of love. I wonder what the head of the harem, the old Turk himself, chewed.”

I usually have two or three jimson weeds volunteering around the yard, but being an annual it requires some bare ground for germination. I will collect and scatter seed on some disturbed ground this fall so that I may have a few more night flowers next year. Though it is a common plant throughout the state, most people miss the evening flowering and only happen upon it during winter walks when it is a curious looking stem of bare branches with egg-shaped spiny pods. You may want to collect a few seeds and scatter them in a corner of your garden for some night flowers of your own.

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