It sometimes seems the spring rains will never end. To hide the sun behind a veil of clouds after months of short gray days seems both cruel and unusual. There are, however, benefits. The happy confluence of moisture and sunshine transform the desert briefly. For a few weeks each May, ground normally as vegetated and inviting as a New Jersey parking lot is blanketed with wild flowers, Indian Paintbrush, Globemallow, Lupine, and a dozen species I cannot name. Drab cacti sport brilliant boutonnieres, garish and unavoidable. Yucca with blossoms the color of cream consort with hummingbirds and moths. Birds and bees seldom keep company but in a riotous world, briefly afire with the flames of life, the sound of a multitude of the latter sporting patiently, playfully, attentively with the flowers cannot help but turn one’s thoughts to those of love.
Perhaps the most beautiful of these desert flowers is Datura wrightii – devil’s weed, thorn apple, jimsonweed, sacred datura. It seems impossible that this startling bloom is related to the potato. Fashionably white, as pale as death, one of its common names is borrowed from its eastern sister, Datura stamonium, a plant used to poison unwelcome British soldiers in Seventeenth Century Jamestown, Virginia. And like its sister, every part of the plant is packed with potent chemicals – atropine, hyoscyamine, and scopolamine – and in lethal quantities. The shaman of the Ancient Ones used datura to help them commune with the cosmos. I sometimes wonder how many remain in permanent limbo, trapped across the millennia between heaven and earth, as the learning curve between dose, response, and over-medication was mastered.
Datura can often survive the fury of the summer sun. The flowers close tightly by day but open at night. Selene, the moon goddess, was renowned for her beauty and brightness, as is the flower that opens summer evenings at the call of its namesake. But perhaps Persephone, the goddess of the underworld, who spent half of her time in heaven and the other half in hell, should also be considered.