Wonderful World of Native Plants

Datura makes excellent companion plant

Naturalist details ways to attract backyard wildlife


Guest speaker

George Miller, president of the Albuquerque chapter of the Native Plant Society of New Mexico, will be the guest speaker for our monthly meeting on May 17 at 6 p.m. in the boardroom of Kit Carson Electric Cooperative. The title of his lecture is: "Save a Place for Wildlife; Create a Backyard Oasis with Native Plants."

Miller is an environmental photojournalist, naturalist and author of books on landscaping with native plants of the Southwest, Texas and Southern California. He has written field guides and smartphone apps for wildflowers of New Mexico, Texas, Colorado and California. A longtime botanist and nature photographer, Miller received a master's degree in zoology and botany from the University of Texas. He has published in Texas Highways, Texas Parks and Wildlife and Wildflowers. His most recent book, "Landscaping with Native Plants of the Southwest," will be available for sale at the meeting.

The topic of the meeting is about human housing disrupting the complex web of life, from soil microorganisms to butterflies, bees, birds and small mammals that live here. By intentionally landscaping with native plants, each person can repair the habitat a yard at a time. Miller will discuss backyard basics and plants for Taos that will create an oasis for wildlife amid lawns, alien plants, pavement and parking lots.

Featured plant

Sacred datura, or Datura wrightii, can be seen blooming from April through October. This plant of poison and medicine, mythology and ornamental beauty is complex and has much cultural significance, including a strong connection to our Southwestern Native American populations. All parts of the plant are poisonous and to be avoided by human and animal ingestion. As a class of hallucinogens called deliriants, they tend to cause deliriums instead of the more lucid hallucinogenic conditions of other plants.

A member of the potato (Solanaceae) family, this plant seems to stands on a cusp between holy and evil. It is sometimes called moonflower, belladonna or angel's trumpet. But it is also called devil's trumpet, deadly nightshade, hell's bells and locoweed. The flower is large, striking white, trumpet-shaped, sometimes with purple margins. Even its fragrance is described as both sweet and stale. How it grows depends also on where it grows. With plenty of moisture and shade, it can grow to a flowering bush - or in bright sun, it's a great ground cover for disturbed areas. The flower opens at night, when moths come out. Its particular dancing partner and pollinator is the hawk moth.

Datura's use as a sacred plant in ancient rituals is well documented. While many cultures are known for using the nine different varieties of the plant, like Greece, India, China and the West Indies, the Southwestern native cultures may be best known in the Americas. The Aztec and Huichol of Mexico, Navajo and Havasupai are a few documented cultures familiar with this plant. But a particularly fascinating study of the Mimbres culture of the Mimbres Valley has associated this plant and moth with much of the artistry and symbology of their famous black-and-white pottery.

Some believe that many of the pottery's patterns are related to the plants, depicting things like the explosion of the spiky seedpods, the spiraling of the unfurling flower and the flower's wide-open, five-lobed nature, while many of the geometric patterns and colors symbolize the hawk moth. The physical reality of the shapes and colors involved and patterns could be connected. Datura ingestion by a shaman is one interpretation. In the trance state, the shaman merges with the hawk moth or it becomes the shaman's guide. Some bowls and other pottery seem to portray shamans riding or merged with a hawk moth. For more information on this subject, see "Decoding Mimbres Painting" on CognitiveArchaeologyBlog.

Avoid ingesting the plant, as the result can be distorted vision, uncoordinated movements, weakened heartbeat, convulsions, coma and death. But as a beautiful visual addition to a garden, it is hard to beat.

This column is printed every second Thursday of the month. Suggestions for topics, speakers, special events, field trips, community outreach activities or learning opportunities are welcome. Email TaosNPS@gmail.com or call (575) 751-0511. Chapter webpage: npsnm.org/about/chapters/taos. Facebook page: Search for "Native Plant Society New Mexico Taos Chapter." Johnson is an active member of the national Outdoor Writers' Association. She writes this column on behalf of the Native Plant Society of New Mexico, Taos Chapter.