Before getting started on the virtues of angels’ trumpet, one of the most gorgeous, most rewarding, most pain-in-the-butt flowers available to the average gardener, let’s put in a good word for keeping a plant on the back of the toilet. Nothing fancy, a pot of ivy will do nicely, or ferns, which appreciate life in the bathroom. Point is simply that you get a big mood-boost when you see something green and growing every time you turn around – or reach over, as the case may be – to flush.
Okay, on to brugmansia, aka angels’ trumpet, a tender shrub with huge, well, trumpet shaped flowers and an amazing night time perfume. The angelic part may be that fragrance , one of the strongest in the garden, but it might also be because brugmansias are strongly poisonous – eat some and you could end up with the angels.
Flowers are huge, 8 to 10 inches long , and come in singles, doubles, and ruffled multi’s that look like quadruples, in yellow, apricot and pink as well as white, but the single white ones are the most fragrant and to my eye the loveliest. They used to be rare, but now they seem to be everywhere – or at least in every catalog and garden magazine photo shoot – and although they’re not cheap, they’re not that pricey, either.
What they are, the first year you buy them, is small. It takes several seasons to get the kind of height and mass that makes brugmansias so astonishing, and that means everyone north of zone 9 must be willing to keep them indoors in the winter. My biggest one ( now deceased) took 5 summers – admittedly, summers in Maine – to make it to 8 feet tall and 5 feet wide. Every March I vowed ” this year is the last,” and every September, faced with saying goodbye to the ever-larger tree, festooned with dozens and dozens of blooms, I said – and still say, to its descendants – ” Oh all right, back to the cellar with you. ”
Brugmansias bloom in cycles, though not always, as is sometimes said, with the full moon, covering themselves with flowers and your night garden with exotic scent that may or may not be psychoactive but is beyond intense… My first plant had 3 flowers on it when I brought it home from the nursery and I was so woozy by the time I got out of the car I had to go for a walk.
Years later, an Argentine visitor who saw the 8 footer told me the plants grow to tree size there, but people know never to fall asleep under them because ” the spirits will come to them in dreams… ” Moral of the story? Plant brugmansias by the path to the front door or somewhere else you’ll walk by them each evening, but DON’T plant any under the bedroom window. More on Brugmansia care below, and a sense of the range of what’s possible here but while we’re on the subject of save-worthy plants, don’t forget cannas and hot peppers.
CANNAS: Saving these over doesn’t give you much of a leg up on individual plant size; what it does is give you herds of them for very little money. Like dahlias, they increase obscenely each year, so you can get the dazzling effect created by huge patches without spending dazzling sums of money. And like dahlias, they’re easy to store – you just let the leaves die of frost in fall, cut them off, then store the rhizomes in a cool closet. Restart in mid-march for full sized plants in June.
HOT PEPPERS: We think of pepper plants as annuals, but they aren’t. And many of the tastiest, like habanero and aji amarillo, don’t start to bear significant crops until they’re about 6 months old. They don’t adore life as houseplants, but they will make it through on a sunny windowsill and your reward is a huge head start on the summer pepper season.
* Spring to Summer: Order or buy for late spring delivery, so you can put them outdoors right away. Plant where they will have plenty of room and think of Audrey 2, the ravenous plant in Little Shop of Horrors. ” Feed me!,” she cried, “! feeed meee!” If it is possible to overfeed or overwater a brugmansia, I have not yet found how much it would take.
* Fall: When frost threatens, dig the plants, transfer them to large pots (or plastic-lined bushel baskets) and bring them inside. If you happen to have a cool basement or other spot that stays around 45 degrees, put them there and don’t worry about light. Otherwise they need all they can get. Either way, they’ll drop lots of leaves ( if it’s dark, they’ll drop them all.) Water sparingly – hardly at all if they’re cool and dark, enough to keep the soil moist if they’re in light.
* Late Winter/Early Spring:
If they’ve been in light and slowly growing, by March they’ll be very leggy, and unless you’ve been faithful with the insecticidal soap, very buggy as well. Cut them back , clean them up and start fertilizing weakly every 3 weeks or so.
If they’ve been semi-dormant in the cool dark, the jig is up: next time you go down to put something in the dryer you’re gonna see ghost growth , creepily pale sprouts with a few wan leaves, groping blindly upward in search of light and – in all probability – already sporting a few aphids. Bring them into the light and proceed as above.
* Spring: Start hardening them off as soon as you can – cool weather ( 45-55 degrees) won’t hurt anything, and the sooner they can leave their pots and go back in the ground, the happier everyone is going to be. If you get overconfident and plant too early , protect them from light frosts with a thin sheet and just prune back anything that gets clonked.
Update: I’m sure Mary (see comment) isn’t the only one who wonders how to manage all this in and out without damaging the roots. The answer is that it’s impossible. Roots will be damaged, in some cases – i.e. when you’re digging up huge ones – quite severely. No problem. Brugmansias are weeds, and pruning the roots, like pruning the tops, has no long term ill effect.