February 22, 1892
Today is the birthday of the American lyrical poet and playwright Edna St. Vincent Millay.
Gardeners cherish Edna’s verses like:
April comes like an idiot, babbling and strewing flowers.
I would blossom if I were a rose.
I will be the gladdest thing under the sun!
I will touch a hundred flowers and not pick one.
However, Edna threw some shade at the very poisonous and rank-smelling Jimsonweed plant, the Thorn-apple, or Datura stramonium (“duh-too-ruh stra-MO-nee-um") in her poem “In the Grave No Flowers," writing:
Here the rank-smelling
Would plant this by his dwelling?
Well, it turns out the American botanist and geneticist Albert Francis Blakeslee was especially fond of Datura.
In fact, one of Albert’s friends once joked that in his life, Albert enjoyed two great love affairs — with his wife Margaret and with Datura, and in that order.
Not surprisingly, Edna’s verse riled Albert, and in response, he sent her a letter:
"I thought I would write to you, and … answer... your question by saying that I would plant this by my dwelling and have done so for the last thirty years rather extensively. It turns out that this plant (Datura stramonium) is perhaps the very best plant with which to discover principles of heredity."
Now, Datura's common name, Jimsonweed, is derived from Jamestown’s colonial settlement, where British soldiers were given a salad made with boiled “Jamestown weed” or Jimsonweed. For days after eating the greens, instead of quelling the colonial uprising known as the Bacon rebellion, the British soldiers turned fools, blowing feathers in the air, running about naked, and acting entirely out of their minds.
Datura’s other common names, the thorn apple or the devil’s apple, offer a clue that Datura is a nightshade plant. Those sinister names came about because nightshades were historically thought to be evil.
In contrast, the Algonquin Indians and other ancient peoples regarded Datura as a shamanistic plant, and they smoked Datura to induce intoxication and hallucinations or visions.
The etymology of the name Datura comes from an early Sanskrit word meaning “divine inebriation.”