By Cindy Watter, U.C. Master Gardener of Napa County
The first brugmansia I ever saw was growing in an enormous pot someone had placed against the wall of an otherwise insalubrious alley in Eureka, California. The creamy, dangling flowers looked like art nouveau lampshades, and the blooms had a scent that was a combination of vanilla and rosewater. Brugmansia's common name is "Angel's Trumpet," and it lives up to its name by making everyone around it take notice. In a word, it is spectacular.
This tree originally came from the area of South America near the Andes. It is no longer found in the wild, but is easily cultivated. It is a tropical plant, but can be grown in some areas with very cold winters. In this case, it is best to grow them in a container that can be pulled indoors during a freeze. Here in California, you will need to cover a brugmansia with a cardboard box, or a cloth over a frame on a freezing night. I do it every year, just for a few nights.
Brugmansia is a member of the Solanaceae (nightshade) family, and is closely related to datura (common name "Devil's Trumpet") and jimson weed (datura stramonium). Brugmansia is poisonous, like many of the nightshades. (However, the benign potato, eggplant, and tomato are non-toxic members of that family.) All parts of the plant are dangerous to ingest--the leaves, the seeds, the root, the lovely flowers. Extracts from this plant can cause hallucination, coma, and/or death. If you have a thrill-seeker in the family or simply an omnivorous toddler or pet, maybe this plant isn't for you. But if you find it beautiful, as I do, don't be afraid. Use common sense--do not eat brugmansia!--and wear gloves when you work with it, or at least wash your hands afterward. Avoid getting plant juices in your eyes. These are excellent rules to follow with any plant, by the way.
Brugmansias like plenty of light--filtered, if the sun is very strong--as well as water, and a lot of fertilizer. Feeding it every two weeks is not too often. To spur initial growth, use a balanced fertilizer, with equal amounts of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. After it produces buds, use any fertilizer made for flowers. Don't let the soil dry out. I repotted mine into very attractive, enormous terra-cotta pots. They looked elegant, but soil dries out faster in unglazed terra cotta. Having them in pots made them more portable as I searched for the best light/shade conditions, however. I look forward to putting them in the ground soon, where they will need less water.
The best soil for brugmansia is one that has been amended with plenty of compost. Make sure the hole is twice as big as the root ball. Shake some of the dirt off the roots, put the plant in the hole, and then fill the hole with a combination of soil and compost (which allows the roots to spread and seek/retain moisture). Put some mulch around the stem, but not against it. Give it a good slosh of water, and sit back and enjoy your beautiful plant, which will be very attractive to bees and butterflies.
I have seen several brugmansias around Napa, usually in the golden yellow "Charles Grimaldi" variety, which can grow over ten feet tall and features generous repeat blooms. A friend of mine who lives in Oakland has one that is twelve feet tall and produces lush ruffled flowers at Thanksgiving. I asked her what she does to care for them, and she replied, airily, "Nothing, except for pruning." (Her back yard must have a seam of very rich soil and an underground creek, then.) That brugmansia also benefits from sun all day long. Failing that, brugmansias planted against a heat-retaining wall can be successful.
In our climate, we don't have to prune brugmansias until the spring. Leaving the old growth on is good for frost protection. When you do prune them, remove the lateral branches and other old growth. Throughout the growing season, prune for shape and to encourage new growth, which produces the flowers. Wash your shears in soap and hot water before and after each use. (This is another good rule to follow when pruning any plant.) When you are pruning, you can take a 6-inch cutting of old wood and put it in a damp mixture of sand, perlite, and vermiculite. Plant it with the root side down. Keep it moist and out of the direct sun and in a few weeks you will see new growth. You have successfully propagated a brugmansia. You can also take the same cutting, pull off any lower leaves, and place it in a glass of water. Change the water daily and keep it out of direct sun. In a few weeks, roots should form.
Once established, a brugmansia needs relatively little care, and will repay you with a stunning display of flowers and scent, in addition to luring bees and butterflies. It is a visual and olfactory delight. I had been having a hard week, and a Master Gardener who works in a nursery dropped over a few days ago with a watermelon pink "Little Miss Lili" brugmansia. Instant euphoria! Suddenly, I felt just fine.
Workshop: U. C. Master Gardeners of Napa County will hold a workshop on “Toxic and Carnivorous Plants” on Saturday, October 27, from 9:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m., at the University of California Cooperative Extension, 1710 Soscol Avenue, Napa. Foxglove. Lily-of-the-valley. Wisteria. These common plants and many others are toxiix. Who knew? Sundew. Venus flytrap. Pitcher plant. Carnivorous, or so we've heard. Join the UC Master Gardeners and explore the fascinating properties that plants have to protect themselves and survive in inhospitable places.Online registration (credit card only);Mail-in/Walk-in registration (check only or drop off cash payment).
Master Gardeners are volunteers who help the University of California reach the gardening public with home gardening information. U. C. Master Gardeners of Napa County ( http://ucanr.edu/ucmgnapa/) are available to answer gardening questions in person or by phone, Monday, Wednesday and Friday, 9 a.m. to Noon, at the U. C. Cooperative Extension office, 1710 Soscol Avenue, Suite 4, Napa, 707-253-4143, or from outside City of Napa toll-free at 877-279-3065. Or e-mail your garden questions by following the guidelines on our web site. Click on Napa, then on Have Garden Questions? Find us on Facebook under UC Master Gardeners of Napa County.