Butterfly Garden: Jimsonweed Takes the Heat, Sports Elegant Flowers and Hosts the Endearing Sphinx Moth

With its elegant white trumpet flowers, spiny seed capsules, and fragrant evening blooms, Jimsonweed ranks as one of my favorite butterfly garden plants.

The native datura inoxia partners well with another favorite, Cowpen Daisy.  Plant them together and you’ll have sprays of yellow and white blooms throughout the scorching summer, well into October.  Both plants gracefully defy our brutal heat, need little water or care, resist disease and pests and attract butterflies and moths.

Jimsonweed climbs to three feet and spreads an equal distance.  It creates a handy shady mass that protects less sturdy plants.  Up until this past week, Jimsonweed’s shade shielded verbena from frying and saved my tropical milkweed, too.  The plant is versatile, attractive and easy-to-grow.

Jimsonweed bloom.  Do you see the caterpillar?

Jimsonweed bloom. Do you see the caterpillar?

What else does this member of the potato family have to offer? Its spiny seed pods provide an unusual garnish–or should I say gardenish?  The thorny balls would make delightful earrings, or at least play a starring role in an exotic ikebana flower display.  As summer wears on, the walnut-sized pods turn from green to brown, spreading seed wantonly in the garden, making this durable perennial almost impossible to defeat once established.  The lush, large leaves of Jimsonweed also exude a chocolatey smell when watered or handled.

Spiny seedpod of Jimsonweed

Spiny Jimsonweed seedpod dusted with caterpillar frass

Another bonus: the captivating Sphinx moth, whose large size and brazen daytime flying cause it to be confused with small hummingbirds, hosts on Jimsonweed.  Sphinx moth caterpillars have a reputation with tomato gardeners as the despised tomato or tobacco hornworm, which is beautiful upon close inspection.  Look for it in the photo of the Jimsonweed bloom, above.

Cowpen Daisy, Jimsonweed, milkweed and lantana
August butterfly garden: Cowpen Daisy, Jimsonweed, tropical milkweed, Texas lantana

Underappreciated Jimsonweed does have a down side.  As a member of the nightshade family, it contains tropane alkaloids, the same toxins as belladonna, used in ancient times on poison-tipped arrows.  All parts of  Jimsonweed are poisonous.  Native Americans used the leaves as a painkiller and as an hallucinogen.   

Recent reports have reckless teens using Jimsonweed as a cheap high, but they should beware.  Hospital stays, even death, can result.

Jimsonweed’s namesake may represent one of the first instances of ethnobotanical warfare in American colonial history. Amy Stewart explains in her delightful book, Wicked Plants, that in Jamestown, Virginia, in the late 1600s, “British soldiers arrived to quell one of the first uprisings at the fledgling colony and the settlers remembered the toxic plant and slipped datura leaves into the soldiers’ food.”

They survived, but hallucinated severely for eleven days, giving Virginia colonists a temporary upper hand.   The assisting plant became known as Jamestown weed, and later, Jimsonweed.

Butterfly Bookshelf: The Butterfly’s Daughter Tells Engaging Story of Monarch Migration Through Girls’ Road Trip

A girls’ roadtrip, a mother-daughter relationship interrupted, and a search for family all mirror the great autumn migration of the Monarch butterfly in Mary Alice Monroe’s, The Butterfly’s Daughter, making it a perfect summer read.

The Butterfly's DaughterThis is chick lit for nature lovers.  Best-selling author Monroe weaves universal female themes–the importance of family, forgiveness, and second chances–with a young Mexican-American woman’s coming-of-age. The tale incorporates the magic of the Monarch butterfly migration as well as themes of metamorphosis.

Luz, the main character, lives in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, the daughter of a German father and a Mexican mother.   She never knew her father, and her mother, Mariposa, abandoned her at age five, leaving her to be raised by Abuela, her grandmother.

Abuela is the neighborhood “butterfly lady,” who entertains neighbors and children alike with her colorful butterfly garden and the raising and release of Monarch butterflies.  Abuela and the rest of Luz’s family are from Angangueo, Mexico, one of several  ancestral roosting spots for millions of migrating Monarch butterflies.

The Butterfly’s Daughter
By Mary Alice Monroe
382 pages
Gallery Books/Simon & Schuster

When Abuela dies unexpectedly one autumn morning, the devastated Luz decides to take leave of her job and her boyfriend and travel with Abuela’s cremated ashes “home” to Angangueo in a beat-up Volkswagen beetle she names El Toro.   The trip had been debated for years, but never taken.

Her voyage of self discovery follows the epic flight path of migrating Monarch butterflies as Luz travels south from Wisconsin through Texas and across the border to the Michoacán mountains.  Along the way, she makes unplanned stops, takes surprise detours, and enjoys sidebar adventures that will tempt the reader to find her own VW bug for an adventurous outing.  The interesting characters Luz meets become her friends, enriching her journey, learning as much from her as she does from them.

The book has connections to both Austin and San Antonio.   Just outside Milwaukee, Luz encounters Billy MCall, a laconic, intriguing scientist modeled after Austin’s “cowboy entomologist” Dr. Bill Calvert.   Billy teaches Luz to tag Monarchs.  Later, she spends several days in San Antonio, tracking down her aunt.  There the plot takes an unexpected, pivotal turn.

While the symbolism of the journey may be too transparent for some, the story is poignant, entertaining and educational.  Each chapter begins with a fact about the Monarch migration, and Monarch butterflies appear throughout the narrative, as does information about them.  The life lessons Luz harvests from her trip are ones we can all appreciate.

Butterfly Evangelist and Author of Mariposa Road to Sign Books at Twig Bookstore in San Antonio

Mark your calendars, San Antonio butterfly friends.  Butterfly evangelist and author Robert Michael Pyle will read from his new book, Mariposa Road, the First Butterfly Big Year at 5 PM Wednesday, November 10 at the Twig Bookstore at the Pearl in San Antonio.


Pyle has written 14 books, including the charming Chasing MonarchsWhere Bigfoot Walks, and Wintergreen, which won the John Burroughs Medal.   He’s a Yale-trained ecologist and Guggenheim fellow, and lives and writes full-time in southwestern Washington state.

Mariposa Road documents a roadtrip he took in a 1982 Honda Civic which he affectionately calls Powdermilk (it has with 345,000 miles on it).  His primary companion was a  trusty cottonwood-limbed butterfly net named Marsha.  Pyle set out to have the “first butterfly big year,” a reference to the birding world whereby birders set out to see as many species as possible in one year.  Pyle is the first to aim for a “big year” in the relatively new hobby of butterflying.  Reviewers have been mum on how many of the 800 species in the U.S. he witnessed, encouraging us to read the book to find out.

One reviewer labeled Mariposa Road “at turns whimsical, witty, informative, and inspirational… an extraordinary journey of discovery that leads the reader ever farther into butterfly country and deeper into the heart of the naturalist.”  Some readers complained of its 500-page length, yet the book is scoring five stars on Amazon.

Can’t wait to read this apparent must-have for the butterfly bookshelf. See you there.

Wednesday, November 10, 5 PM

Robert Michael Pyle, Author of Mariposa Road

The Twig Bookstore, 200 E Grayson, The Pearl

San Antonio, TX  78215