Indulge in the tempting beauty of Brugmansia. Three Southern Maryland gardeners share their secrets for flowering success.
Writer: L. Beth Bonifant | Photographer: Vickie Kite Milburn
The siren call of an Angel’s trumpet can be hard to resist. Just ask Wildewood resident Suzanne Patterson. The first time she ever saw one was at a farmers market in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, while there visiting family. Her husband had to refrain her from a purchase, asserting he wasn’t sitting next to the potted plant during their plane trip home. But the haunting beauty of those flowers never faded from memory, and several years later Suzanne finally ordered a white Brugmansia (genus) from a catalogue.
Brugmansia, also referred to as Angel’s trumpet, is a member of the Solanaceae, or nightshade family of flowering plants. Other more familiar nightshades include jimsonweed, Datura, eggplant, potato, petunia, peppers, tobacco and tomatoes. Despite their relationship to other food plants, all parts of Brugmansia are poisonous.
Brugmansia or Datura?
Often confused with Datura, it’s easy to tell them apart: Datura’s produce smaller, upward facing flowers with prickly seed pods on herbaceous plants reaching 4’ tall. Flower color varies from white to yellow, pink and purple. Brugmansia plants are larger and more upright with a semi-woody trunk and branch structure. Plants have potential to reach impressive heights of 10’ or more depending on the species. Enormous 6–10” pendulous blossoms dangle downward, and come in various shades of apricot, yellow, pink, red, coral and white. Both plants have highly fragrant flowers that intensifies at night.
Datura’s re-seed freely, however Brugmansia seeds shrivel and die on the plant. Native to South America, all species of Brugmansia are now listed as extinct in the wild by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Speculation has it that endangered or extinct animal dispersers of viable seed, such as giant ground sloths, has resulted in these circumstances. Fortunately, human interest has ensured Brugmansia’s survival as this tropical ornamental continues to be universally cultivated and sold.
Keep it cozy.
In coastal, frost-free climates plants can be left in the ground, but here in Southern Maryland you’ll want to move your plant into a garage or basement to hibernate during the cold winter months. If you aren’t too attached to your Brugmansia you can experiment. While a freeze kills plants to the ground, there’s still a possibility it will survive mild winters, re-emerging the following year.
Then there are those people who love their “Brugs” enough to take extraordinary measures.
As customary, Suzanne initially brought her plants into the garage. But we all know how fast they can fill up, especially if you want to keep your cars inside too. After a couple years of backing vehicles out of the garage before passengers embarked, her husband John searched for a less irritating solution.
A bricked patio under the sunny south side deck seemed like it would work. Wrapping this space in plastic sheeting created the perfect greenhouse effect … well, almost. John, an engineer by trade eventually improved upon his original idea by fabricating plexiglass fitted panels resulting in a more professional appearance and semi-permanent space. The design allows the flexibility to remove and reinstall panels as desired.
Perfect Pass-Along Plant
Each year, after spending summers outside the plants are trimmed enough to fit back through the door. Some of Suzanne’s plants are over 20-years old now, she says this annual reduction refreshes them. Taking cuttings from the discarded portions, she pots them up or roots them in water; either way they propagate easily. The desire to share seems to be a common characteristic among gardeners, and Brugmansia are the perfect pass-along plant.
A longtime member of the St. Mary’s County Garden Club, Suzanne donated cuttings for the club to sell on Earth Day for many years, and continues to gift friends and neighbors with baby Brugmansias.
Once safely back inside the plexiglass surround, the Pattersons let the plants go dormant. Now instead of (almost) daily attention, plants are watered sparingly once a month. Suzanne notes they do “lose their leaves and look dead,” but as soon as they’re returned outside into sun, watered and fed, they spring back to life. Her plants usually remain outside May through October.
These sun-loving, fast-growing plants need lots of water and fertilizer to fuel all their rapid growth and prolific flowering activity.
Start by planting Brugmansia in an oversized pot. Roots quickly fill the space, and the weight helps anchor the top-heavy plant after it gets going. The Pattersons use contractors buckets filled with their own compost. Large containers demand watering less frequently, but Suzanne warns against letting plants dry out. High phosphate liquid fertilizers provide the quick boost they constantly crave. You could add a side dressing of Osmocote, or another slow release fertilizer to compliment their feeding schedule, but don’t rely solely on these products to satisfy Brugmansia’s huge appetite.
Plain Jane to Bombshell
Another SMCGC member, Kathy Glockner, was first introduced to Brugmansia nearly 30 years ago and has cultivated them ever since. The garage as plant crash pad didn’t work out so well for the Glockners either, so she and husband Ron wrestle them into the crawlspace at the end of each season now. Easy access on the outside of the house and a generous 5’ height interior provides perfectly cozy conditions allowing her to keep plants intact with only minor pruning. Kathy brings her plants out each spring in early April to start soaking up the sun and prefers that they keep a low profile in the garden during their early awkward, ugly duckling stage. By July and August, though, when they’re cloaked in green and flowers start appearing in waves, these plants have regained their celebrity status.
Last year when Ron’s son was married on Oct. 24 in the Glockners’ garden, the couple was practically upstaged by a Brugmansia. The people-sized plant started blooming on Monday and was “in all its glory!” by Saturday, exclaims Kathy. She counted 52 of the fairy tale flowers on that happily-ever-after day.
You Got to be Cruel to be Kind
You can always count on Brugmansia to make a bold statement.
Susan Lavetti of Bryantown says hers look more like “giant trees” than plants by the end of each summer. To illustrate the point, she showed me a picture of her “tree” in its container sitting on the sidewalk. I could barely see the house through the branches, but I did observe the top of her plant hovering at the gutter.
Like countless others, Susan had received her first cutting from a neighbor long ago. Now she pays it forward by providing cuttings every year to a friend for the La Plata Garden Club’s annual plant sale.
Susan’s approach to Brugmansia care sounds more like corporal punishment, but the tough love technique yields amazing results. Her method entails cutting the plant back each fall to within a foot or so above the soil, covering the container with a garbage bag and stashing it in the basement until spring; only breaking isolation once a month to provide small sips of water.
Whether they keep their plants in a penthouse or the penitentiary during off-seasons, all of these enthusiasts agree you mustn’t skimp on sun, water and fertilizer during the growing phase. Other than that, just get ready to sit back and watch the incredible trumpet show! •
Hummingbirds and butterflies are pretty daytime pollinators, but after dark when Brugmansia’s flower fragrance intensifies you may be surprised just who, or what comes calling. Large white or light-colored flowers reflect moonlight, illuminating them at night. This combination of increased visibility and fragrance makes them utterly irresistible to moths … and bats! These small mammals can eat their weight in insects during a single night; while feasting on nectar and moths, they’ll also snack on those menacing mosquitoes.