This section is from the book "Nature's Garden", by Neltje Blanchan. Also available from Amazon: Nature's Garden; An Aid To Knowledge Of Our Wild Flowers And Their Insect Visitors.
Flowers - Showy, large, about 4 in. high, solitary, erect, growing from the forks of branches. Calyx tubular, nearly half as long as the corolla, 5-toothed, prismatic; corolla funnel-form, deep-throated, the spreading limb 2 in. across or less, plaited, 5-pointed; stamens 5; 1 pistil. Stem: Stout, branching, smooth, 1 to 5 ft. high. Leaves: Alternate, large, rather thin, petioled, egg-shaped in outline, the edges irregularly wavy-toothed or angled, rank-scented. Fruit: A densely prickly, egg-shaped capsule, the lower prickles smallest. The seeds and stems contain a powerful narcotic poison.
Preferred Habitat - -Light soil, fields, waste land near dwellings, rubbish heaps.
Flowering Season - June - September.
Distribution - Nova Scotia to the Gulf of Mexico, westward beyond the Mississippi.
When we consider that there are over five million Gypsies wandering about the globe, and that the narcotic seeds of the thorn apple, which apparently heal, as well as poison, have been a favorite medicine of theirs for ages, we can understand at least one means of the weed reaching these shores from tropical Asia. (Hindoo, dhatura). Our Indians, who call it "white man's plant," associate it with the Jamestown settlement - a plausible connection, for Raleigh's colonists would have been likely to carry with them to the New World the seeds of an herb yielding an alkaloid more esteemed in the England of their day than the alkaloid of opium known as morphine. Daturina, the narcotic, and another product, known in medicine as stramonium, smoked by asthmatics, are by no means despised by up-to-date practitioners. Were it not for the rank odor of its leaves, the vigorous weed, coarse as it is, would be welcome in men's gardens. Indeed, many of its similar relatives adorn them. The fragrant petunia and tobacco plants of the flower beds, the potato, tomato, and egg-plant in the kitchen garden, call it cousin.
Late in the afternoon the plaited corolla of this long trumpet-shaped flower expands to welcome the sphinx moths. So deep a tube implies their tongues; not that these are the benefactors to which the blossom originally adapted itself - they were doubtless left behind in Asia - but apparently our moths make excellent substitutes, for there is no abatement of the weed's vigor here, as there surely would be did it habitually fertilize itself. Any time after four o'clock in the afternoon, according to the light, the sphinx moth, a creature of the gloaming, begins its rounds, to be mistaken for a humming-bird seven times out often. Hovering about its chosen white or yellow flowers, that open for it at the approach of twilight, it remains poised above one a second, as if motionless - although the faint hum of its wings, while sucking, indicates that no magic suspends it - then darts swift as thought to another deep tube to feast again, of course transferring pollen as it goes. But what if the Jamestown weed miscalculate the hour of her lover's call and open too soon? Mischievous bees, quick to seize so golden an opportunity, squeeze into the flower when it begins to unfold (flies and beetles following them), to steal pollen, which will sometimes be entirely removed before the moth's arrival.
The Purple Stramonium, or Thorn Apple (D. Tatitla), a similar species, usually with darker leaves, and pale lavender or violet flowers, or with its long, slender tube white, has become at home in so many fields and waste lands east of Minnesota and Texas that no one thinks of it as belonging to tropical America.
Only sphinx moths can reach its deep well of nectar, from which bees are literally barred out by an inward turn of the stamens toward the centre of the tube. Caterpillars of our commonest member of the sphinx tribe conceal themselves on the tomato vine by a mimicry of its color so faultless that a bright eye only may detect their presence. In the South the caterpillar of another of these moths (Sphinx Carolina) does fearful havoc under its appropriate alias of " tobacco worm."