Sharon Oard Warner

Sharon Oard Warner

Hawkmoths and Moonflowers: Facts of Nature

15 Octo­ber 2019

Last Sun­day, my hus­band and I ven­tured over to East Austin for brunch. As we walked down the side­walk to a great lit­tle place called Cenote–honest-to-god, the apple­sauce pan­cakes are one of the best things I’ve ever put in my mouth–I spot­ted a large moon­flower plant, and, then, even bet­ter, a hawk­moth caterpillar.

My fas­ci­na­tion with hawk­moths led me to write an essay that inter­weaves infor­ma­tion about these mys­te­ri­ous insects with the sto­ry of my old­er son’s addic­tion. Thank­ful­ly, (that word doesn’t begin to describe my grat­i­tude) my son is clean and sober now.)

Here’s a rel­e­vant excerpt from the essay:

“In New Mex­i­co, hawk moths pol­li­nate the white trum­pet flower of the sacred Datu­ra plant. In this area, the Datu­ra is most often referred to as jim­son weed. Out in the bosque, these sprawl­ing plants grow wild. My step­moth­er care­ful­ly cul­ti­vat­ed a Texas spec­i­men she called a moon­flower, an apt name for the enor­mous blooms that open at dusk and glow in the celes­tial light. In the high desert, where so much of the land­scape is tan, brown, and tan­nish brown, the flow­ers cap­ti­vate. Geor­gia O’Keeffe cap­tured their milky beau­ty in sev­er­al of her paintings.

Not many peo­ple know that Datu­ra is a known hal­lu­cino­gen. Even the gray-green leaves are poi­so­nous, lethal­ly so. Hawk­moths are most­ly immune to the tox­in, but botanists have spec­u­lat­ed that some unfor­tu­nates become “jim­son weed junkies.” Observers have described the errat­ic behav­ior of intox­i­cat­ed moths: some will nod off in the blos­som and nap for hours. Once they do take to the air, they fre­quent­ly lose direc­tion or even fall to the ground.

Recent­ly, I read that the lar­vae of cer­tain hawk moths can tol­er­ate high lev­els of tox­ins. The tobac­co horn­worm, for instance, can rapid­ly detox­i­fy by excret­ing nico­tine from its tis­sues. Where­as the nico­tine in the tobac­co plant leaf is tox­ic to most insects, the horn­worm has evolved a spe­cial mech­a­nism for selec­tive­ly seques­ter­ing and secret­ing nico­tine. Dif­fer­ent moths metab­o­lize tox­ins dif­fer­ent­ly. Some can­not with­stand what oth­ers are unfazed by. It’s a fact of nature.”

Jimson Weed
Jim­son Weed
Jimson Weed Georgia O'Keeffe
Jim­son Weed, Geor­gia O’Ke­effe, 1931
Caterpillar on Moonflower
Cater­pil­lar on Moonflower

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