Backyard Nature Wednesday: Datura

Datura is a member of the Potato (Solanaceae) family, also called the Deadly Nightshade family. It is a large and diverse family that includes many edibles like tomatoes and...well, potatoes. Datura, however, is not edible. In fact, all parts of the plant are poisonous and can be fatal if ingested.

The plant itself is a stoutly branched and sprawling perennial with long, gray-green ovate leaves that are covered in tiny smooth hairs. It can grow up to two feet high and sprawl many feet wide.

The beautiful and fragrant flowers are large and trumpet-shaped. The native plant, the one from my garden that you see above, has white flowers. This is the iconic blossom featured in several Georgia O'Keefe paintings.
"Jimson Weed" by Georgia O'Keefe

Jimson weed is what the plant was called in the area where I grew up. There are actually several different species of datura and jimson weed (Datura stramonium) is one of them.

In addition to the plant with large white blossoms, there are cultivated varieties in other colors, mostly in the pink to purple palette. I've grown some of them in my garden in past years but they did not last. They died out after two or three years. The native datura dies back to its roots in my garden in winter but comes back strong in the spring.

Although the plant is poisonous, it contains hallucinogenic alkaloids and because of this, it featured in religious ceremonies of the native peoples of the Southwest. This also accounts for one of the names that the plant is known by - Sacred Datura.

Datura blooms from early spring through late fall in my garden. Usually, it continues to produce blooms right up until the first frost in December. The blooms open at dusk and close by mid-morning on the following day. Each bloom only lasts for one night, during which it is a magnet for moths, especially hummingbird moths. While it remains open during daylight hours, it also attracts butterflies, bees, and hummingbirds. When the pollinated flowers fade, they produce a thorny, globular, walnut-sized fruit which gives the plant another one of its popular names - Thorn Apple.

In fact, datura is known by a variety of local names. In addition to those already mentioned, they include Stink Weed, Locoweed, Green Dragon, Devil's Trumpet, Moon Flower, Mad Apple, and many others.

The datura that we know grows throughout the Southwest and much of the South, but other species grow in many parts of the world and have been used, as they have here, for medicines and for mystical experiences.

In my garden, though, I grow it because it is beautiful and beloved by wildlife. Moreover, on moonlit nights, it glows wonderfully in the garden, almost seeming to give off a light of its own. That, too, is part of its mystical power.      


  1. Beautiful but lethal flower. I wouldn't have thought that animals were attracted to it. I would like to see one though, since you say "it almost gives a light of its own"; that must be quite an experience.

    1. The flowers really are meant to be viewed in the moonlight and to attract the moths that are out at night, so they are quite luminous then.


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