Angel’s Trumpet Heralds Horticultural Heaven

The angel’s trumpet (Brugmansia) is everything its name suggests. Its pendulous flowers are not only shaped like trumpets, but they blare at you with their enormous size, prolific quantity and sweet scent. Moreover, consuming any part of this plant could result in your seeing angels’ trumpets since it happens to be a highly toxic flowering shrub. Angel’s trumpet is consumed purposely as a hallucinogenic, but it also has the potential to be fatal when taken in excess.
Its exotic and dangerous aspects – a sort of fatal attraction? – have combined to increase the popularity of this plant from year to year. There is even a Web site (www.lotussong.com) through which you can purchase 17 different angel’s trumpet species and hybrids.
Angel’s trumpet is not yet a staple of the retail nursery trade, and when you see one offered at your neighborhood nursery, it usually has the classic white or yellow-orange flowers. Be aware that many other types exist, including several double white forms, a variegated hybrid with peach flowers, as well as lemon yellow and salmon pink hybrids.
Brugmansia (named after the Dutch naturalist Sebald Brugmans) has many characteristics that the ornamental plant connoisseur finds desirable. Its hanging trumpets impart a weeping quality that is almost universally embraced by plant enthusiasts. The flowers themselves can reach 10 inches in length, and may be set cheek by jowl on the plant, creating a dense floral tapestry. The flowers are fragrant, especially at night, when they attract pollinating moths. The hawk moth – which, in its larval or caterpillar form is known as the tomato hornworm – has a long proboscis that is especially well-suited to harvesting the nectar found at the base of Brugmansia’s trumpet flowers.
Brugmansia may grow to a height of 20 feet, producing hundreds of flowers during the latter part of spring, summer and early fall. The fragrance of a single plant can perfume an entire garden. Especially fragrant are the double white Brugmansias; each flower consists of two gleaming white trumpets nested one inside the other.
In the Los Angeles area, Brugmansia is a perennial that can live for 20 years or more, and is not killed by light frost. The unusual cold spell we experienced last December, for example, damaged many Valley Brugmansias, but nearly all of them survived and started growing with a vengeance when spring arrived. From the standpoint of maintenance, the most welcome characteristic of angel’s trumpet is its semi-succulent growth. This means that you do not have to be an expert to prune this plant effectively. Almost any sort of moderate cutting back, in early spring, can be done without concern that flower production, later in the season, will be compromised.
Despite its moderate frost tolerance, Brugmansia cannot abide the deeper cold of the Antelope Valley. In that area, however, it can still be grown in a container that, during the winter, should be placed against a west- or south-facing wall. To be extra safe, move the plant indoors during the winter, and reduce watering to a bare minimum. Angel’s trumpet does experience a distinct winter dormancy period.
Planted in the ground, angel’s trumpet seems to grow best in half-day sun to bright shade (under a tall tree), and should definitely be protected from the wind. The soil around it should be kept slightly moist – a 3-inch layer of mulch is highly beneficial in this respect.
Brugmansia leaves tend to be paler, by nature, than the foliage of most other plants, but some experts still advise fertilizing it on a monthly basis during the growing season. Fertilizer recommended for palm trees – such as the Whitney Farms formulation – has proven to be especially effective on angel trumpets.
Recently, I wrote about the manroot, or wild cucumber, which some homeowners disparage as a vile weed that should be deracinated at all cost. Chris Van Schaack, native plant expert of Tarweed Nursery in Chatsworth, has observed this California native for many years and concluded that it is not a problem at all, that it may put on a lot of foliar growth, but conveniently dies back each winter. I was also informed by Gladys Jacobsen of Tujunga that the botanical name of this plant, which is Marah, is a clue to where it makes itself at home. In the Bible, Marah was the name of the first spring of water encountered by the Israelites after they left Egypt. The water of Marah was initially bitter but was sweetened when Moses, instructed by God, took a plant and threw it into the spring. Thus according to Jacobsen, Marah is an indicator plant for the presence of a nearby source of water.

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