The Moon Flower

When I was a child in northern Illinois my father planted a remarkable, wondrous plant that he called a “moon flower”. It grew large, bushy, but without woody branches. In the evening the most glorious flowers would unwrap themselves, giant luminous white trumpets that seemed to glow in the dark; when looked at from the open end they were huge and round and white, and challenged the full moon for brilliance. And after each bloom fell away, a large round seed pod appeared, covered with threatening spines that provided a child with a small knight’s mace.

Years later, now in Texas, I finally had a yard of my own, a place where I could plant flowers that I wanted, and I began my quest for the “moon flower”. I found seed packets labeled “Moonflower”, further described as “Ipomoea alba” or “Calonyction“. The pictures on the packets showed similar blooms, but these were vines, and the leaves seemed not right. But I bought them anyway, because they were close and reminded me of what I wanted. I carefully nurtured the seeds in the house, and in the spring when the days had become warm enough I planted them in the yard. All of them vanished, eaten by something.

I continued searching for the plant I remembered. Someone suggested that I was looking for nicotiana, some species of which also have white blooms that open in the night. The flowers are much too small, and nothing about them seemed right, but I bought a packet anyway. Night-blooming, white, they sounded attractive even if they were not what I was looking for. I spread the seeds in the yard, but none came up. The next year I started the seeds in the house, but the few that sprouted vanished shortly after being planted in the yard, just like the Ipomoea.

Clearly my quest was not going well. I had not found the moon flowers that I remembered, and the substitutes I tried wouldn’t grow.

Diligent searching finally revealed the name of “my” moon flowers — Datura. I soon saw that I was not alone in my fascination with these plants. I found pictures, descriptions, even videos. The descriptions and comments revealed a variety of names — “angel’s trumpet”, “jimson weed”, “loco weed” being only a few — but this was the moon flower I sought. My task now was to grow it in my garden.

I bought a seed packet and read the directions. It was unreasonably complex, and seemed unlikely to allow the plant to grow wild — score the seeds with a knife, then soak for some number of days before planting inside, move the shoots to the garden after last frost. This seemed like a lot of bother to grow a weed, but I carefully followed the required steps. Most of the seeds produced nothing, but a small number of healthy-looking shoots were ready in the spring. I happily planted them when the soil was warm enough. The next day they were gone, apparently eaten to the ground. I repeated this process several times over several years, always with the same result — either the seeds never produced or the plants vanished in the garden.

I heard of a nursery nearby that sold potted Datura. I bought two. They were large, healthy plants, and seemed clearly hardy enough to withstand whatever had attacked the little ones. I planted them in the garden. A few days later they were gone, eaten back to the ground.

My frustration was growing. Around town I saw these plants growing, probably wild, possibly even as unwanted weeds. I had even seen them growing wild along a walking path on a late summer visit to my home town. The descriptions of the plant showed that it was both an hallucinogen and poisonous — what could have eaten mine? I had visions of biker snails, tattooed and tough, brazenly risking death for the thrill of a Datura high. And how did those other people’s plants survive if mine couldn’t?

One Sunday morning, on a walk through my neighborhood, I found in the front yard of a salon a set of raised plant beds filled with huge Datura. I arranged to walk past this yard nearly every Sunday. As the season passed I picked dried seed pods and carried them home, dropping them in my garden. In the spring no plants appeared from the seeds I had dropped, but the ground below the raised beds in the salon’s yard was full of Datura shoots. The salon was closed on Sunday and no one was around; the ground around the beds was gravel and the shoots’ roots were not firmly attached; and I guessed that the shoots in the gravel would be weeded out and discarded soon — I could easily liberate rescue a few of these probably unwanted plants. I carried some home and put them in pots in the house. They grew. They seemed happy.

When the weather warmed sufficiently I moved the pots to the yard, but did not plant these Datura in the ground, thinking that the pots might provide protection from the biker snails. And over the summer these plants flourished, became huge, and bloomed majestically.

Datura, summer 2008

Datura, summer 2008

And so the following January, when we moved from Texas to West Virginia, I loaded the pots containing the now dormant Datura into the truck and brought them along. As spring approached small shoots appeared on the old stems, and life began to return to the plants. The ground will soon be warm enough, and the last frost date will soon be passed, and the plants will reside in our West Virginia yard. I hope the biker snails stayed in Texas. But I will reserve one plant in a pot just in case.

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3 thoughts on “The Moon Flower

  1. Great story! I had no idea of this quest at all though you lived across the way for sixteen years.

  2. You are a man of mystery! I am enjoying your blog. When is the autobiography coming out?

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