PATTERNS IN NATURE: DATURA SEED PODS

In places the dry winter veld shows up patches of the skeletal remains of the Datura plants that ripened during the autumn months. The spiky green fruits have since dried, split open and scattered their highly toxic seeds that will spawn new plants once the spring rains have arrived.

DATURA

A widespread weed in South Africa, Datura, grows mainly in places where the soil has been disturbed, such as along roadsides, seasonal river courses, as well as in cultivated lands. We grew up knowing it by the Afrikaans name of Stinkblaar (Stinking Leaves) although I later discovered its English common name is Thorn Apple – at least two varieties commonly occur here: the Large Thorn Apple (Datura ferox) – also known as the Fierce Thorn Apple – and the Common Thorn Apple (Datura stramonium). I find it interesting that the Afrikaans name focuses on the leaves (which produce an unpleasant smell when crushed), while the English name points to the fruit. The genus name Datura comes from the Bengali name ‘dhatura’ for the plant, while the species name ferox means ‘strongly fortified’ and refers to the long spines on seed pods. The seeds of both are poisonous, so it was a plant we were warned from early on to avoid.

The spiny fruit houses the highly toxic kidney-shaped seeds. The photograph below shows the green fruit. This later hardens and dries to a dark brown before splitting open to reveal the black seeds. The Common Thorn Apple is also known colloquially in this country as malpitte (crazy seeds). All parts of Datura plants are poisonous and may prove fatal if ingested by humans as well as livestock and pets as they affect the central nervous system.

The white to creamy-coloured flowers are trumpet-shaped. The petals sometimes show a violet tinge.

This annual belongs to the Solanaceae – or deadly nightshade – family. Although these plants have become naturalised over most tropical and warm temperate regions, they are thought to have originated from the tropical regions of Central and South America. Datura stramonium is one of the world’s most widespread poisonous weeds and it competes aggressively with crops in the field and pasture. It is listed as a noxious weed in South Africa.

 

THE HUMBLE DANDELION

The Common Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale), probably a native of Europe is now a cosmopolitan weed in this country, dismissed by most gardeners as being particularly troublesome when they decide to grow in otherwise well-manicured lawns! This reminds me of the interesting poem, Dandelion, by Jon Silkin:

Slugs nestle where the stem

Broken, bleeds milk.

The flower is eyeless: the sight is compelled

By small, coarse, sharp petals,

Like metal shreds. Formed,

They puncture, irregularly perforate

Their yellow, brutal glare.

And certainly want to

Devour the earth. With an ample movement

They are a foot high, as you look.

And coming back, they take hold

On pert domestic strains.

Others’ lives are theirs. Between then

And domesticity,

Grass. They infest its weak land;

Fatten, hide slugs, infestate.

They look like plates; more closely

Life the first tryings, the machines, of nature

Riveted into her, successful.

Far from simply being a weed, dandelions have proved to be useful plants both as salads (leaves) and medicinally (roots). Dandelions are also used to make healing teas, wine and skincare products – by those who have the knowledge to do so. Apparently the buds, flowers and leaves can eaten fresh any time you want a healthy snack!

That is the more serious side of dandelions. What about the irresistible urge so many people – not only little children – feel to blow the puffball of the puffy white dandelion seeds apart?

Like so many people the world over, I believed from early childhood that this was an opportunity to make a wish. Some people are certain that the seeds will carry one’s thoughts and dreams – if that were so then I feel sure there can hardly be a puffball left as we blow them apart in order to connect with our loved ones during this long period of lockdown – thank you COVID-19! Take a moment to watch the video here to see why the seeds float so well: https://www.discovermagazine.com/planet-earth/why-dandelion-seeds-are-so-good-at-floating

Whatever beliefs you may attach to them, there is great visual appeal in watching the parachute-like seeds waft away in the breeze. As dandelions generally thrive in difficult conditions, they are thought to symbolise the ability to rise above life’s challenges – something we all need to work at during this pandemic.

INVASIVE ALIENS: CANNA INDICA

The common garden plant, Canna indica (Indian shot), has been declared as an alien invader plant in South Africa, falling into Category 1b of the National Environmental Management: Biodiversity Act which means it must be removed from your garden. To prevent these tough perennial plants from spreading, it is best to remove them carefully, ensuring that all the dense clumps of tubers have also been dug out. Unfortunately, the Canna indica has the propensity to invade stream banks, forests and other natural areas, crowding out and destroying the indigenous vegetation.

Note both the narrow leaves and the narrow red flowers.

Canna indica is a tall and vigorous grower, bearing copious small and narrow mainly red flowers. The green or bronze leaves are also narrow. The flowers are followed by fruits that are at first green and spiny. These turn brown before splitting open and releasing multitudes of black, pea-like seeds with a hard outer coating. This plant spreads by seed and underground rhizomes.

The seed pods are visible.

As with so many garden plants have proved to be invasive, Canna indica was introduced as an ornamental plant – they originate from the Caribbean and tropical America.

SHARP SHADOW

Anything that grows in this drought-stricken garden is celebrated – even the small weed growing in the cracks of the path outside my kitchen, the delicate tracery of its leaves sharply echoed by the relentless sunlight.