It started innocently enough with just one plant, but that led to another and then another. When all were packed into the basement one winter, I counted 50-plus brugmansias stowed behind the furnace, in the cold cupboard — even in the washroom. My wife, Shelley, concerned by my new obsession, suggested I stop taking cuttings and making more plants every time one came out of dormancy and started to grow. I didn’t stop.
The following summer I was glad I hadn’t, because that year the plants burst into a spectacular show of 225 trumpet-shaped flowers — some nearly the size of wine bottles. Their intensely sweet fragrance wafted into the house and floated down the street.
There’s nothing subtle about brugmansias (Brugmansia spp. and cvs.). They’re gluttons for fertilizer, lushes for water, devoted heat lovers and maniacal growers. But because they’re such show-offs — so ostentatious and so eager to please — they’re worth a bit of coddling.
Flower colours (which often darken slightly as the bloom opens) include white, peach, yellow, orange, pink and red, and blooms can be single or double. The flower form — shape, length, peaks at the ends of the petals — varies among the many wild species and hybrids. The foliage is large, sometimes with jagged edges. Most cultivars have green leaves, though there are a few variegated forms as well.
Displaying & enjoying
Brugmansias bloom from early summer to fall in flushes, following a buildup of buds, then they rest and set more buds. Because of this flower-rest habit, consider having more than one plant to ensure ongoing blooms; plants grown from cuttings often bloom when quite small.
They’re well suited to spots near a patio, because flowers open and become fragrant late in the day, just when gardeners need a break. They also look good in island beds, where they can serve as a focal point. Grown near a window, the scent can drift indoors. In short, place brugmansias where they’ll be close enough to be enjoyed.
I once dotted the unused portion of my driveway with brugmansias in half-barrel-sized pots, and when I eventually removed the driveway to make more garden space, I lined the new path with the plants. By late summer, they met over the top to form a fragrant, flowering arch.
Growing & maintaining
Young plants can be shaped into multi-stemmed bushes or single-stemmed trees. The speed of growth and height over the summer depends on the cultivar and how it’s shaped—but they’re not timid growers. Once, while in Mexico, I met a very fragrant brugmansia that grew well above a second-floor balcony. One benefit to creating a tree form is that the hanging flowers will be at eye and nose level.
To make a tree, Anthony Drew, a tropical landscaper who rents, sells and overwinters brugmansias and other big tropicals at Anthony’s Gardens in Toronto, recommends staking a single stem and letting it grow (pinching off side shoots) until it reaches four feet (1.2 m). He then pinches the tip to encourage two side branches to form a Y-shape. Once the two new tips are a few inches (about 8 cm) long, he pinches these to form a second set of Ys; this forms a good permanent framework for the plant. In the fall, cut back to two sets of Ys, removing all the leaves, before storing.
While full sun is often recommended, a semi-shaded location where the plants are less likely to dry out is preferable. They’re heavy feeders and benefit from a compost-enriched soil when grown in the ground. When grown in containers, feed weekly with a water-soluble balanced fertilizer — these are hungry, hungry plants.
In the summer, don’t let the soil dry out — ever. Water stress causes leaves and buds to drop. They guzzle back the water, so an actively growing brugmansia, especially in a container, might require daily watering. Having said that, they don’t like waterlogged soil, so containers must have drainage holes.
Brugmansias can be quite large and are most showy when mature. For that reason, consider keeping plants year to year, instead of starting from scratch each summer.
While brugmansias will grow all winter in a sunny window indoors, they can also be forced to go dormant — good if you’re short on sunny window space. Another advantage of dormant storage is that once the leaves are gone, so are the bugs. (Whiteflies and spider mites seem to have a special fondness for them.)
Growth slows as temperatures drop in the fall. While freezing temperatures can kill the whole plant, a light frost will kill the leaves and induce dormancy without killing the stems. If you’re uncomfortable leaving plants to chance in a frost, pick off all the leaves in late fall before bringing the brugmansias indoors.
Plants can be huge by the time fall arrives. I had one plant that consistently reached above the eaves of my bungalow. I keep mine in 14-inch (36-cm) pots that I sink into the ground or into a bigger pot. That way, when cold temperatures arrive, I just cut back the top so the plant is no taller than me, and use a flat-edged spade to chop off roots that have grown into the surrounding soil (and there will be lots).
Instead of storing dormant the plants in my basement as I once did, they now go into an insulated shed that stays just above freezing. I don’t give them any supplemental light, since they’re not growing; if they start to grow during a winter warm spell, however, they can be trimmed without harm—and those trimmings can be used as cuttings to start more plants!
Dormant brugmansias can go straight into the garden once there’s no further risk of frost. For earlier blooms, however, pull your plants out of dormancy and get them growing a month or two before siting outdoors. Do this by placing them in a warm, bright location. Dany Bonneau of Brugmansia Quebec in Saint-Valérien de Milton, Que., wakes up his plants in March or April.
Word of caution
One additional, not-so-subtle note about brugmansias: All parts of the plant are poisonous when ingested. Once I had children, my menagerie dwindled to a couple of plants that I could keep farther back in the beds, where little hands couldn’t pick up fallen parts. Now that my children are older, I’m planning to grow more again. The 225-flower event of my former brugmansia days isn’t my goal. Anthony Drew told me he had plants with 200 blooms each. That’s far from subtle — and that’s my new ambition.
Brugmansia and datura: A genus divided
Brugmansias (Brugmansia spp. and cvs.) are woody tropicals with hanging flowers. Daturas (Datura spp. and cvs.) are their herbaceous cousins (usually grown as annuals) with upright flowers that come in white, yellow and purple. The name datura can be confusing, as some people refer to brugmansia as datura, a legacy of taxonomists who used to lump the two in the same genus, Datura, but have now classified them separately. Adding to the confusion is that both plants are commonly referred to as angel’s trumpet.