Wildflowers

Datura wrightii
Datura wrightii is widely recognized by its beautiful white flowers and known by a variety of common names.  Some simply call it datura while others know it as sacred datura, moonflower, angel’s trumpet, or devil’s trumpet.  Others prefer Indian apple, thorn apple, mad apple, Jamestown weed or jimsonweed.  Regardless of the name, Datura wrightii is an impressive plant.

The genus Datura belongs to the Solanacea family.  Nine species of Datura are native to North America.  Datura wrightii, the most common in our area, is a large perennial reaching three to four feet in height and six to eight feet in width.  It blooms in its first year, dies back to the ground after a freeze, and then reappears in the spring growing larger and bushier each year.

Datura wrightii has a tough thick stalk that branches and spreads.  It has large, unpleasant smelling, alternate, lobed leaves.  They are covered with fine hairs that give them a downy feel and grayish look.

All parts of the plant are toxic, even its nectar, due to concentration of alkaloids that can cause hallucinations and even death.  Particularly sensitive people may develop a rash after handling the leaves.  Although the plant can be deadly, Native American Indians and early settlers have used it medically and for its narcotic effects.  It has been made into a suave to treat skin problems and smoked to treat asthma.  It has also been a part of manhood initiations and spiritual rituals.

In 1676, British soldiers in Jamestown, Virginia ate the leaves of a similar datura (Datura stramanium) as greens.  The men suffered from the plants’ hallucinogenic effects for days.  The famous incident resulted in the plant being called Jamestown weed which was corrupted to Jimsonweed.

The names moonflower, angel’s trumpet and devil’s trumpet describe the five inch long, regal white trumpet-shaped flower.  At dusk the flowers unfurl from ivory swirled buds and release a wonderful sweet scent.  The blooms flare to five inch circles with long stamens and slightly ruffled edges with five graceful hair-like points.  They remain open all night and are pollinated by hawk moths.  The flowers create a beautiful scene glistening with dew and shimmering in the early dawn light but are usually gone by mid morning.

All through the blooming season as the flowers fade, thorny ball-shaped seed capsules with ruffled caps form.  The green capsules hang down from the plant’s stems, hence the names thorn apple, Indian apple and mad apple.  They grow to two inches before turning brown and splitting open to release their flat round seeds.

Datura wrightii is easy to propagate from seed.  It grows in part shade to full sun and prefers sandy, well drained soil.  It’s normally found on bottom lands and floodplains.

The first Datura wrightii that I found growing on our property years ago appeared all on its own.  The one I have now was purchased as a small plant in a six inch pot at a native plant sale last fall.  I planted it by a sycamore stump and hoped it would do well.  In the spring I watched it emerge from dormancy only to see it nipped back by a late freeze.  I shouldn’t have worried.  It quickly recovered and started blooming in May.  One morning in mid August I counted thirty-eight blooms.

Datura wrightii is a plant of stark contrast – striking beauty and deadly poison.  Georgia O’Keefe celebrated its lovely white trumpets in several of her famous paintings in the 1930’s, about two hundred and fifty years after the famous incident in Jamestown.

The plant is often described as coarse despite downy leaves and velvety blooms.  Its foliage is ill smelling while its flowers are sweet.  Datura wrightii has as many contradictions as common names.  It is both an angel’s trumpet and a devil’s trumpet.

Buffalo-Bur
Wildflowers-of-Texas”  by Dorothy Thetford
Common name:  Buffalo-Bur
Botanical name:  Solanum rostratum
Family:  Solanaceae
Another “look, but don’t touch” Texas wildflower is still blooming along our roadsides and fallow land.  Buffalo-bur Solanum rostratum is in the Solanaceae Family and began blooming earlier in the season alongside silver-leaf nightshade S. elaeagnifolium and western horse-nettle S. dimidiatum.  However, its blooming cycle is in full swing while the other two are already going to seed.

Buffalo-bur grows in various soils throughout Texas from June through October, and is commonly found in abandoned prairies, overgrazed pastures, and always in disturbed soils or piles of dirt and gravel at construction sites.  And to confirm the term ‘disturbed’ soils, I’ll share a secret with you concerning my latest discovery of natives at their best.  Simply drive north on I-35 (Denton toward Gainesville) and check out TxDOT’s newly re-vamped median.  It appears to have been professionally landscaped with buffalo-bur plants growing in rounded mounds that are approximately 15 inches tall along side common sunflower and silver-leaf nightshade.  The beauty of this natural combination should inspire each of us to get in turn with nature.

The uniquely-designed flower never made it to the home landscape because of the many prickles on its stems, leaves, and calyces.  If you can work around those, it’s a prime candidate for xeriscape gardening.

Each star-shaped yellow flower flares out into five slightly curved points and averages one inch in diameter.  The four uppermost anthers are also bright yellow, but the lower anther is enlarged and is a brownish-purple color.  This characteristic offers an interesting contrast against the yellow flower petals, and certainly deserves a closer look.

The fifteen- to twenty-inch tall plant is densely covered with very attractive leaves which are pinnately compound (deeply cleft), alternate, and average two- to six-inches long by one- to three-inches wide.  But, beware, the underside veins are also lined with prickles.

The seed encasement, too, is a solid covering of prickles which clings to anything, i.e., animal hair and, historically, buffalo-fur, to be transported elsewhere.  Since this plant is considered poisonous, ranchers diligently try to eradicate it before these hitch-hiking seed pods are mature enough to travel.

Buffalo-bur thrives as a drought-tolerant annual, growing easily in our extreme heat and rainless summers.  If your cattle are not stomping around in your flowerbeds, gather and plant a few seeds in your garden for a spectacular display next fall.  Or, if in doubt, witness it’s natural habitat between I-35 concrete slab and the concrete median wall.  It’s definitely a survivor, beating all odds, even tho the prickles may be threatening.

Dorothy, Elm Fork Chapter of Texas Master Naturalist Class 2001, and Gold Dragonfly Recipient 2003, is past president of Trinity Forks Chapter of NPSOT.  Her “Wildflowers-of-Texas” photo greeting cards are available locally at Cupboard Natural Foods, or via 940-382-9344.

Western Ironweed

Wildflowers-of-Texas” by Dorothy Thetford  (July 2006)

Common name:  Western Ironweed
Botanical name:  Vernonia baldwinii
Family:  Asteraceae
Found in hot, sunny prairies or along edges of open woods, western ironweed Vernonia baldwinii grabs your attention because of its intense color.

Actually, the common descriptive color of ‘purple’ doesn’t do justice to this wildflower.  It is truly a special color that’s even prettier than purple.  My artist friend, Dr. June Impson, and I have confirmed that the heart-grabbing color is ‘cobalt violet’.

Western ironweed flowers are arranged in a flat-topped inflorescence or flower head, known as a corymb.  The 5 to 6-inch diameter corymb is composed of 18 or more disk florets, each only 1/2 inch diameter. There are no ray flowers.  Florets bloom separately, thus the flower head or corymb is a combination of buds, blooms and expired flowers during its blooming cycle.

Its large leaves measure up to 6 inches long by 2 inches wide, are alternate, stalkless, and have very fine serrate leaf margins.  The thick, hunter-green foliage provides a splendid color complement to the cobalt violet flowers.

Several stout, 2 to 5-feet tall stems of this dark green foilage take center stage as a clump or colony of ironweed because the native prairie grasses are only half that height during its late June-July blooming period.

This perennial, native to zones 1-9, is suggested as an excellent landscape plant because it blooms mid-to-late summer, requires no extra water, and thrives in extreme heat.  Sounds like the perfect candidate for a xeriscape setting !

When William Baldwin, 1779-1819, botanist and physician of Pennsylvania discovered, collected, and named this species, I suspect ‘water conservation’ and ‘xeriscape’ were foreign terms.   However, western ironweed, being a survivor, especially in Texas, is a choice plant for the environmentally-smart gardener who can provide defined boundaries or allow ample space for expansion.

Check fence rows and sunny prairies now for this native wildflower and feast your eyes on its exquisite cobalt violet color.

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Dorothy, Elm Fork Chapter of Texas Master Naturalist Class 2001, and Gold Dragonfly Recipient 2003, is past president of Trinity Forks Chapter of NPSOT.  Her “Wildflowers-of-Texas” photo greeting cards are available locally at Cupboard Natural Foods, or via 940-382-9344.

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