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Brugmansia Miracle

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I love brugmansias and daturas, but they’ve been a disappointment to me. Especially the brugmansias.

Brugmansias (they used to be called tree daturas) just barely make it in my climate (USDA zone 8). My common experience with them is, just about the time they form a bud, frost hits. And that’s the end of the brugmansia for that year. Next year it will rise again, but not until later than you think possible: usually in the middle to end of May, when things start really warming up. Brugmansias (and their herby sisters daturas) love heat, and shrink away from the cold.

So that’s why I was shocked to come home from a holiday trip to find that my little struggling brugmansia, all of fourteen inches high (about 36 cm), had spouted a bloom.

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In order to have a hope of seeing flowers before frost next year, this fall I laboriously made it a place  indoors – a place where I didn’t think it would thrive, but trusted it would at least not die to the ground (making more work for itself to get to blooming point next season). I had no anticipation that it would bloom, especially not when I went away, leaving the house cold.

What made this happen? Well, I did treat all my houseplants with an organic fertilizer called Voodoo Brew. Voodoo Brew inoculates the soil with some of the microorganisms that make soil nutrients more available to plants. You’re not supposed to use it on houseplants, but it makes my outdoor plants so happy, and my houseplants were looking crummy, and I’m not much of one for rules until I’ve tried them myself. And you’re supposed to use it in the growing season, not the dormant one, but (see above).

Another contributor to this miracle may have been the variety of brugmansia, ‘Cypress Gardens’.  This plant was bred (or selected, I’m not sure which) for containers, and it’s also meant to flower younger than other brugmansias.

Whatever the cause, I’ve got one, just one, beautiful flower trumpet breathing fragrance into the room of a night,

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and showing off that particular sheen I’ve only found on the somewhat-stiff brugmansia trumpets.

An anthropology professor of mine once told me that brugmansias made her think of love; she and her husband had met in South America, and slept under the downbreathing trumpets of a brugmansia.

Actually, she said datura, because at that time the genus hadn’t been broken in two. Now it’s generally accepted that the shrubby plants with downward hanging flowers are in the genus Brugmansia, while the herbaceous (non-woody) plants with upward facing trumpets are in the Datura genus (these are the ones that are called Angel’s Trumpets in many catalogues).

The reason my professor and I were discussing daturas is that I was doing a paper on them; even then I loved them. The chemical constituents of  the different types of daturas and brugmansias are very closely related, although there are individual variations; in that paper I wrote I reported on a custom of some Amazonian shamans, of having several datura trees in their yards. Each variety had a special trait; each variety was used for a different type of divination. Finding a lost item might mean using one tree; helping an adolescent through the spiritual transformation into adulthood meant using another. The shaman knew which to use, how much to use, and how to guide someone through the experience safely.

No such shamans exist in my own culture (although many believe that European witches used daturas as their “flying” ointment, and had some skill in judging the dose and using the experience for spiritual gain). The datura/brugmansia reputation as a hallucinogen naturally attracted me as a teenager, although fortunately I didn’t find any to experiment with at that reckless age. Later, I did try smoking the leaves, since they were long listed in the U.S. pharmacopoeia as a remedy for respiratory problems, to arrest coughing.

They did arrest my cough somewhat, but by that time I knew that too much datura could also arrest breathing, so I was pretty cautious in my experiment (it tasted very bitter, even in smoke, which made me inclined to limit the experience even further). I have seen at least one young woman permanently altered for the worse from eating datura; I would never ingest it.

But I can admire its power through my nose and my eyes and those other senses all of us plant lovers use when we commune with green friends.  I can feel brugmansia’s power of death and resurrection spreading invisible fragrance through my house. That means a lot, this time of year.

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{ 7 comments… add one }

  • Meredith December 28, 2009, 3:01 pm

    Beautiful post! I knew very little about this group of plants before reading it, and now I’m intrigued to find out more. I’ve seen these growing on a neighbor’s back deck, but only from a distance. (It looked like a small tree with huge, dangling, white trumpets.) The blossoms look so stunning up close, and you’ve made me long to experience that haunting fragrance.

  • Genevieve December 29, 2009, 8:35 pm

    Oh Pomona, I love Brugmansias too. They freeze back here and it seems only the old ones have been surviving lately – the climate’s been extra cold the last few years and the babies just don’t have enough oomph to come back from the roots.

    When I lived in San Francisco they were everywhere and I adored seeing them. I remember the ants liked them quite well too – as a little kid I’d pick a few blossoms, but they’d always come with passengers!

  • lostlandscape (James) December 29, 2009, 10:07 pm

    What a great welcome-home present. It seems fitting that you used a product with “voodoo” in its name for a plant with the reputation it has! I often drive past a neighbor who has a giant white brugmansia that comes close to taking up half of his front yard. It’s in bloom much of the year and has tempted me more than once to try growing it. I’ve resisted the brug so far, but I have a couple plants of the local native datura. Fortunately mine share the amazing, powerful fragrance of plants of their sister genus.

  • Steve January 1, 2010, 8:00 am

    James, you’re driving Pomona crazy with the talk of giant Datura’s. Man, I love that plant also. It reminds me of walking a forest in Hawaii and seeing Arturiums and bromiliads in the wild – I felt like a kid in a candy store. I embarrassed myself, lol. “What a newbie!”

    Great post and very interesting on the “voodoo” business. I might have to check that out. My all time cult fertilizer has been “SuperThrive”, although it is far less cultish any more. That and M-Roots, lol.

  • Pomona Belvedere January 2, 2010, 11:14 am

    The San Francisco Bay Area was where I learned to love and admire these plants; tiny yards almost entirely occupied by a flower-covered brugmansias. Yes, there is a little envy cropping up as I hear these visions of large plants…didn’t know about the ants, now I’m trying to recall if I’ve seen them on my datura blooms, or maybe brugmansias are different in this way. I’m a former SuperThrive user myself, and actually I didn’t stop for any particular reason other than that I ran out and at that time it was hard to find locally, so I just moved on to other things. (I used to love reading the accompanying literature, which seemed to hint that it might stave off planetary and political disasters. Who knows? Our govts. don’t do such a hot job at that, maybe SuperThrive can help.) I don’t know M-roots, but now I guess I’m going to have to.

  • Roxie September 16, 2010, 11:04 pm

    Oh, I’ve grown the “upright” Angel Trumpet… I loved it, of course, because it has to be a houseplant except in a pot in the edge of the lawn/garden area outside because I live in Casper, WY. See zone 4 but without the humidity… yup…dry, dry, dry. Think High Plains Arid. This year, I’m trying a dangling yellow and peach one because a friend of mine in Newcastle, WY had one last year and I tho’t I was in LOVE!! So far, the poor thing has been gnawed on by grasshoppers and lost half its leaves during a hail storm… for pity’s sake… do the weather-guessers still get paid when they tell lies….?

  • Pomona Belvedere September 17, 2010, 6:27 pm

    Roxie, I’m impressed that you are growing daturas – and now brugmansias – in Wyoming. That’s quite a challenge! Citrus sprays might help with the grasshoppers, but I don’t know what you do about hail except wait it out and hope the damage isn’t too bad.

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