Early last year, I wrote an article about the angel trumpet, Datura stramonium, and was inordinately proud of being probably the only garden writer alive who could name-drop “Papa Doc” Duvalier, Charles Manson, Hunter S. Thompson, and George Romero in the same article about the same plant. Since then, it’s hard not to notice Datura in the wild, as it were: it grows inordinately well in poor soils, of which the Dallas area has in abundance, and it’s tough enough to survive the worst of our summers once it has a well-established rootball. Oh, and other than caterpillars, anything dumb enough to eat it is going to have one hell of a surprise.
All of the recognized species of Datura have nicknames along the lines of “angel trumpet”, for two reasons. Firstly, the long and lush blooms are evocative of the trumpets traditionally carried by angels in Renaissance art, particularly in paintings depicting the fall of Lucifer and his covenant into Hell. That’s particularly appropriate when discussing Datura, because the odds are very good that anyone eating any part of the plant will be hearing angels, or seeing dark angels, before too long. The reason why Datura is one of the only hallucinogenic plants that’s completely free and legal to own and raise in the United States is because the effects aren’t relatively benign, as with peyote. To hear drug travelers describe it, there’s no such thing as a good trip on peyote, and it takes a particular sort of personality to look at Datura experiences as a positive thing. Besides, most Datura enthusiasts don’t remain so for long: every last part of the plant is exceedingly toxic, and what might be a suitable dose from one plant may be lethal from another.
(Mind you, as a disclaimer, anybody ingesting Datura, for any reason, is on his or her own, and neither this writer or the Texas Triffid Ranch take any responsibility for anyone using or abusing Datura under any circumstances. Even if I had any interest in mind-altering substances, I’d smack anyone I knew who was doing this in the head, in the hopes of rattling a few brain cells free.)
Considering its rather wild history, from Bangalore to Jamestown, one might wonder, understandably, who in their right mind would want to raise this in a garden. Well, so long as it’s not ingested, Datura makes a very attractive and low-maintenance addition. As the kind folks at the International Brugmansia and Datura Society will tell you, D. stramonium grows in small bushes, thriving outdoors through most of the year before dying off in the first hard frost. In warmer climes, it readily resprouts from seeds deposited the previous season, and if protected from freezing, the whole plant comes back every year from a rather tuberous-looking stem. The scent is almost literally intoxicating, and aside from tomato hornworms, it seems to be resistant to most pests. Keep children and pets away from it, and Datura makes quite the charming cover for otherwise dead spaces in backyard gardens.
As mentioned before, Datura does rather well in the Dallas area. Both D. stramonium and its close African cousin D. metel readily grow in front-yard gardens throughout the city and its suburbs, and I’ve been surprised on several occasions by Datura perfume on quiet nights along the “M streets” intersecting Greenville Avenue. (I’ll say that it’s a welcome change from the smell of skunk weed grow houses near Hillcrest and Forest Lane, let me tell you. Some of those are so pungent that the stench nearly knocked me off my bike one evening as I was traveling home from work.) I just wasn’t expecting it to be a herald, as this plant was.
To give context, this beast of a plant is located at Knox Avenue in Dallas, right at the corner where Knox travels over Central Expressway. To the left is Central. To the right is the entrance of Highland Park, the neighborhood that is to Dallas what Beverly Hills is to Los Angeles. Completely surrounded by the larger city, Highland Park is its own enclave, complete with its own schools and police force.
I couldn’t identify it for certain, but I suspect that this monster is classic D. stramonium based on the shape of the bloom buds and the leaves. The clincher, of course, is viewing the seed pods, known as “thorn apples”, as each species has a distinctive pod shape and size. Since the plant had just dealt with a torrential rain the night before, most of the upright blooms had filled with rainwater and collapsed, but the newly unfurling buds were white with just the barest kiss of purple on the edges. Give it another couple of days, and it would go back to flashing ten to twenty blooms at a time, all summer long.
Of course, half of the fun for me was in the locale. I’ve joked for years that the best documentary about life in Dallas is George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, and here was the plant attributed with the creation of real zombies. In that context, finding it outside Highland Park was just too appropriate.