Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Datura flowers, perfuming the night for love

This morning, Richard and I went out to the garden before the sun rose over the hills to check on the datura flowers. These night-blooming plants, also called Jimsonweed, sprout tall buds that stick straight up above their leafy, blue-green canopy like fat green fingers. Over several days, a bud case splits at the top in a star-shaped pattern and a pale yellow-green and tightly pleated datura flower grows its way out, pushing above the green case.

On the day that flower, still tightly closed, gradually turns white, it is ready to bloom. That evening it unfurls, the pleats opening and flexing back into a moon-white flower shaped like a funnel rising from a narrow throat and flaring as wide as twirling circle skirt at the top.

As the datura flower opens, the day fades. The blossom, sometimes tinged with purple, shimmers in the dusk. It emits a sweet lemon and vanilla scent on the cooling air, a fragrant advertisement of its treasure, the sugary nectar produced in glands at the base of its narrow throat. Night-flying moths follow that intoxicating scent right to the datura blossom, hovering on wide wings above the shimmering skirt.

As a moth hovers over a datura blossom, it unfurls its long tongue, like a wire-thin straw with a brushy tip. The moth lowers itself, still hovering, toward that shadowy throat, and its furry body, dusted with pollen from other datura flowers it has visited, brushes this flower's pistil. The pistil's sticky surface catches pollen grains from the moth's body. Lower still, the moth's tongue begins sipping nectar from the glands deep inside the blossom, and the moth now picks up pollen from this flower's anthers, a yellow dusting which it will carry on as it flies away into the night, a sexual messenger traveling from datura plant to datura plant, laden with genetic material.

Once those pollen grains adhere to the sticky stigma surface, each one grows a tube down the inside of the fleshy pistil all the way to the ovary, where it fertilizes the plant's ovules. That's pollination: the datura plant, rooted in place and unable to wander around and chose its sex partners, depends on a mobile courier like the hovering moth to bring sex to it, by transporting genes from other plants of the same species.

The whole point of flowers, especially large and scented ones like datura, is pollination with another plant's genes. The pollinator brushes first past the sticky stigma, depositing pollen from other flowers it has visited before picking up a new dusting of this flower's genetic material. The flower's aim is to infuse its seeds, the next generation, with new genetic tools. It's all about survival.

When I watered the kitchen garden the previous morning, I had noticed the datura plant that grows at the end of the winter squash bed had four buds that looked like they might open that very evening. I intended to go out and see them that night, but I forgot. So when I woke the next morning and looked at the sky, still pale blue before dawn, I remembered the datura flowers. After doing yoga, when the sun had not yet crested the hills to the east, Richard and I went out to the kitchen garden and looked over the wall. There were four huge, moon-white flowers, still open wide, still emitting a trace of the night's perfume.

I looked at each one closely, but their pristine appearance betrayed nothing of the night's activities. Whether they were visited by their moth partners or not, I won't know for several weeks, until long after those shimmering blossoms faded with the morning sunlight. If their ovaries swell into capsules the size of small, green apples armored with hooked prickles, I'll know they were successful in their one night of perfuming the air to attract a partner.

(The photo are mine, from my garden. Note that datura, while ethereally beautiful, is also poisonous. The plants protect themselves - especially their flowers - from being eaten by flooding their tissues with powerful psychoactive compounds. I allow them to flourish only in the parts of our yard out of reach of children and pets.)


Mary said...

Fascinating! I have a beautiful datura that has been loaded with blooms this summer, and now I also know that the plant has been visited by moths at night because I've seen the seeds that you've described. I've admired the flowers all along, but now because of your description I'll appreciate them even more!

Deborah Robson said...

Susan, you have written an exquisite classic here. Lovely. Thank you. said...

What a delight to read your blog, you have a special way with words. Love the Datura photos, I just read about the Datura plant being thought of as a protector of dreams in some countries, people plant them on the corner of their homes for protection. I thought that was so interesting.
Going to add a link to your blog from mine :)
Have a beautiful evening~

Catherine Molland said...

I woke up this morning with a complete image for a painting in my mind as my first thought for the day. It was a night sky with lots of stars and at the horizon, a lighter blue sky. On the ground was a bushy plant with white flowers, that I thought might be datura. But was it night blooming? What was that flower that shone so white? It was a very magical image and your information has been so very helpful. Thanks!

Susan J Tweit said...

Catherine, your image sounds like it was a sacred datura plant. They do indeed bloom at night, opening in the evening and staying open all night until hte next day's sun wilts them. Datura flowers show up brilliant white in the moonlight to attract night-flying moths. Their blue-white tint is an advertisement that says "food here!" and as the moths sip the nectar deep in the flower's long throat, they pollinate the flowers so the plant can produce a new generation. Your image is beautiful, and so is your work!