A rose is a rose is a rose, but for this flower, semantics matters
When desert plants get rain, they make the most of it. Suddenly, a landscape that used to be desolate, like the dark side of the moon, bursts into bloom. In the Chihuahuan desert surrounding T or C, this spring has been spectacular. There are plants, such as the ocotillo, that look like dead sticks most of the time, but this year, they have leaves and blossoms. Agave, the plant from which tequila is made, is also known as the century plant because it supposedly sends up a thick stalk of blossoms only once every hundred years – that’s an exaggeration, but in reality, it stores up water for many years and then sends up a stalk when it gets sufficient moisture. This year, agaves all over T or C are sending up stalks, which grow as much as a foot a day.
Another plant that is teeming this year is the moonflower. In the desert, in the night, in the dark, these huge, trumpet-shaped blossoms seem to glow on their own, standing out from the shadows. They bloom at night, folding up tightly during the day so as not to lose moisture to the harsh sun. Daytime flowers are brightly colored, in order to attract the bees and hummingbirds and other creatures that pollinate them, but nighttime flowers are pale, ghostly white, so they will stand out for the nighttime pollinators. For smaller flowers, that means moths, but for the moonflower, bats do the job.
The moonflower goes by many names, and exploring those names gives a lesson in semantics – yes, all of those names refer to the same plant, datura candida, but each name carries a different connotation.
Moonflower: beautiful, ethereal, romantic. Carlos Santana composed an evocative sound picture that captures this image.
Sacred datura: a hallucinogenic plant used in Native American rituals. A shaman might use the plant to induce visions, but the practice is extremely dangerous – datura is a highly toxic alkaloid that is deadly even in very small doses.
Jimson weed: a term that completely ignores the beauty of the plant.
Nightshade: Yes, this term has the connotations that fit the nature of the plant. It’s beautiful, but it’s also deadly. It’s a thing of darkness, poisonous, but also, we can’t resist it.
Angel’s trumpet: I have to think that somebody composing cheerful garden catalogs has to be guilty of coming up with this name. Something that blooms in the dark of night, that is pollinated by bats, that is so seriously poisonous, can’t possibly have anything to do with angels.
The photo above comes from Kiernan Joliat, who has made her work available through a Creative Commons license. Here’s a link to Joliat’s original photo: Datura flower - pretty, but poisonous.