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.)