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Photo of a moth
Sex in the Garden

by Sharman Apt Russell

They met in the desert, on a sultry New Mexican night. Their affair was brief, a few stolen moments. It was everything they desired.

Each flower on a sacred datura plant blooms only for a night. During those brief hours, the large silky trumpet-shaped blossom must do everything it can to attract a suitor: one who will sip the sugary nectar at the base of the floral tube, pick up grains of pollen (the flower's male sperm), and carry these off to fertilize another flower on another sacred datura. Sex is the sine qua non. For this reason alone, the creamy white petals of Datura wrightii open at twilight (or on cloudy days), release a lemony scent, and seem to glow in the dark.

Photo of a sacred datura blossomLuscious and seductive, sensuous and sly, Datura wrightii is a rather common weed whose dark-green heart-shaped leaves grow in mounds along roadsides, in ditches and arroyos, on desert slopes and in pinyon-juniper forests from California to Texas. Varieties of the plant are also called thorn apple, angel's trumpet, moonflower, jimsonweed and, somewhat appropriately, devil's weed.

When my children were small, I carefully rooted out the sacred datura around my house and property in New Mexico. When they were older, I showed them a patch of the blue-green leaves, a healthy tangle four feet high with green prickly fruit and six-inch-long flowers, and I explained: These plants are members of the Solanaceae, or nightshade, family, with high concentrates of alkaloids such as atropine, a component of belladonna. Every part -- leaf, flower, and seed -- is toxic.

Native Americans traditionally used sacred datura as a hallucinogen by soaking and steeping the leaves into a tea or chewing the seeds or roots. In one Zuni myth, "When the earth was still soft," two curious children spied on the gods and later gossiped about the secrets they saw. The Twin War Gods were so upset that they caused the earth to swallow up the children and, at the place where they disappeared, the sacred datura grew and blossomed for the first time. The use of the plant, even by experienced rain priests or shamans, is considered dangerous: Visions can turn into convulsions or death. Only a few years ago, teenagers in El Paso, Texas, went into the desert near where I live and made a tea of sacred datura, hoping for a vision or cheap high. Two boys died. A third came home, staggering and delirious, his tongue stuck to the roof of his mouth.

I also grew up in the desert, and as a teenager in the early 1970s, I heard stories about "datura tea." This gorgeous, sinister flower has become part of my understanding of the natural world, where beauty and violence often intertwine -- or wear the same face. The beautiful white trumpets of the sacred datura still evoke in me a physical response: a slight hollowness in the chest, a momentary stillness. Perhaps that is why when Datura wrightii began to reappear on the edges of my garden, in the scruffier parts of the backyard where the ground slopes and weeds take over, I was happy to see the plant leaf and bloom. Often in the summer as the sky turned dusky, I would take a backyard stroll, drawn ineluctably to those opening flowers flaunting their scent, their curvy shape, their luminous color.

None of this come-hither had anything to do with me, of course. The drama of any flower is designed to attract its pollinator, usually an insect. For most sacred datura in the wild, that pollinator is a stout-bodied, fast-flying species of sphinx moth, often the tobacco hornworm moth (Manduca sexta). In my garden, however, the more popular visitor is the white-lined sphinx moth (Hyles lineata) commonly found across the United States.

Sometimes mistaken for a hummingbird, the white-lined sphinx moth hovers while feeding, its wings a-whir as it sips nectar from a larkspur or evening primrose or the deep white tube of a sacred datura. Its proboscis, or "drinking straw," extends more than an inch, over half the length of its body, a kind of magic trick, like pulling an impossibly long scarf from your sleeve. After a few seconds, the moth rotor-whirls away, a spinning dervish, a Black Hawk on a mission. Although the body appears unnecessarily large, it enables the moth to regulate its temperature: shivering to warm up and circulating blood through the abdomen (which acts like an air-cooled radiator) to cool down. They are hard to see despite their size; they seem to be in constant motion, quickly buzzing past your ear or hair. Like most moths, they have wonderful eyesight and they can keep feeding as the sun sets, through dusk, starlight, and moonshine.

My experience with white-lined sphinx moths is kaleidoscopic. They are a blur, a movement that seems half-imagined. Then, suddenly, they come perfectly in focus, poised before a white flower, the heavy body kept aloft by the beat of narrow wings. One can fully appreciate their display of color and symmetry only when they are dead -- which is how I usually encounter them, my broom sweeping up a stiff corpse hidden in a corner. (This is how most of us get to know moths, when they invade our houses and die there.)

More often than not, I stop to spread out the sphinx moth's body and admire its pattern: the upper wings slashed with a diagonal buff-colored band, the shorter wings marked with broad bands of pink and black. The furry brown head and thorax are vertically striped in white. Down the brown back are alternating squares of black and white. The effect reminds me of an Escher painting.

The caterpillars of these moths are also highly designed: variably colored, often lime-green or yellow, with side rows of spots bordered by black lines, and a protruding yellow-orange rear horn, whose function is to scare off attackers. These larvae have the habit of rising up like miniature sphinxes, regal and demanding, daring you to interfere with their happy lives of eating. Periodically, they hatch from their eggs en masse and can be seen migrating toward food. Recently, an amateur entomologist reported on the Internet a herd of larvae stretched out for hundreds of yards on a well-traveled road in Tucson, Arizona. Amid carcasses "splattered everywhere," thousands of live yellow caterpillars were dashing across the hot pavement. Eventually the larvae make shallow burrows in the soil where they pupate and emerge, usually in several broods, from February to November.

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Sharman Apt Russell writes frequently about the secrets of the natural world. She teaches writing at Western New Mexico University and is the author of Anatomy of a Rose and An Obsession with Butterflies.

Photos: moth, Richard Seaman; flower, Tom Till

OnEarth. Winter 2004
Copyright 2003 by the Natural Resources Defense Council