Caren White is a Master Gardener and instructor at Home Gardeners School. She has been associated with Rutgers Gardens for over a decade.
What are Brugmansia?
Brugmansia (Brugmansia spp.) is a family of small tropical trees that are native to tropical areas of South America. They are members of the solonaceous family which includes common vegetables such as peppers, potatoes and tomatoes, all of which are New World plants. Brugmansia is characterized by its distinctive trumpet shaped flowers which hang from the branches pointing downwards and give it its nickname, Angel’s Trumpet.
The trees are hardy only through zone 9. North of that zone they are grown in containers and brought indoors during the winter. Outdoors the trees can grow 20 - 30 feet tall. Grown in containers, they grow 3 – 6 feet as long as you keep them pruned, including root pruning.
Depending on the species, the flowers grow 4 – 24 inches in length. They range in color from white to yellow to pink. Some bloom year-round while other species bloom every 6 to 8 weeks.
Are Brugmansia Poisonous?
All parts of the plants are toxic, including the roots. They contain tropane alkaloids including scopolamine and hyoscyamine. Ingestion can result in hallucinations, confusion, tremors, migraine headaches, dry mouth, constipation and even death. The toxins can be absorbed through the skin so it’s a good idea to wear gloves when you are handling the plants.
Medicinal Uses For Brugmansia
Native American cultures took advantage of the chemicals in the plants to carefully use them medicinally. They mainly used the plants in poultices and ointments to treat arthritis, dermatitis, headhaches and as an anti-inflammatory. Highly diluted, the plants were used internally to treat stomach ailments, to induce vomiting, expel worms and parasites as well as a decongestant or as a sedative.
Modern medicine has moved from using the toxic chemicals in the plants directly to synthesizing them in the laboratory. The alkaloids are used to treat asthma, muscle spasms, and as an anesthetic.
How to Grow Brugmansia Outdoors
If you live in a tropical area and want to grow your brugmansia outdoors, make sure that it will get some afternoon shade to protect it from the hot sun. They prefer acidic soil, pH of 5.5 to 7. A soil test will tell you if your soil is acidic enough and if not, what amendments you can add to achieve an ideal pH. A homegrown solution that I use is to take pine needles from under my evergreens and spread them around my acid loving plants. As the pine needles decompose, they add acidity to the soil.
Brugmansia are thirsty plants and need lots of watering. Do not allow them to dry out. The plants should be grown in well-drained soil. If the soil is too soggy, the roots will rot and your plant will die.
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They are also heavy feeders meaning they need lots of fertilizer to support their spectacular flowers. Avoid slow release fertilizers. They will not provide enough nutrients fast enough. Plan on fertilizing weekly with a water soluble fertilizer so that you can water and fertilize at the same time. Use fertilizers that are formulated specifically for flowering plants such 15-30-15 or 10-50-10.
How to Grow Brugmansia Indoors
If you live north of zone 9, you can either grow your brugmansia in a container and bring it indoors during the winter or you can grow it in the ground during the summer and dig it up, put it in a container and bring it indoors when cold weather sets in.
Summers are cooler in northern areas so you can grow your brugmansia in full sun, both indoors and outdoors. Make sure that the container that you use has a drainage hole and the potting soil in it drains well. Your plants will need lots of water, but if they get soggy their roots will rot and the plant will die. To get the correct pH of 5.5 - 7, use a potting soil that is specifically formulated for acid loving plants.
Water frequently. When the plant is outdoors, the containers will dry out quickly so plan on watering every 2 to 3 days. Your plant will need the same amount of fertilizer as plants grown outdoors year round. Avoid potting soils that have slow-release fertilizer already in them. This will not release enough fertilizer quickly enough to help your plant. Use potting soil with no fertilizer in it and then water weekly with a water soluble fertilizer to provide the nutrients your plant needs. Use a fertilizer formulated for flowering plants such as 15-30-15 or 10-50-10.
In the fall when night time temperatures fall below 60⁰F, it’s time to bring your plant indoors. Place it in a room with a south facing window so that it will get enough sunlight. If you don’t have a south facing window, you can use grow lights to provide extra light for your plant. If the leaves start to fall off, it is an indication that your plant is not getting enough light. Add additional light. Keep it well watered and continue to fertilize.
Another good alternative is to bring your plant indoors and encourage it to enter dormancy for the winter. Place it in a cool, dark place such as your basement. Allow all of the leaves to fall off. Water sparingly, just enough to prevent the soil from drying out. Do not fertilize. In the spring, when night-time temperatures are above 60⁰F, you can bring your plant back outside and resume regular watering and fertilizing. The plant should grow new leaves and then begin to bloom.
How to Grow Brugmansia From Cuttings
There are no more native brugmansia growing in the wild. All that are left are the garden hybrids developed by humans. And like most hybrids, brugmansia are propagated via cuttings rather than seed.
Growing brugamansia from cuttings is easy. You can take cuttings any time of year. Choose semi-softwood cuttings, green branches that are just beginning to harden and turn brown. They should be fairly substantial branches that are the diameter of one of your fingers. Take cuttings that are 6 – 8 inches long.
Strip off all of the leaves except the top leaves from your cutting. Dip it in rooting hormone to help it develop roots quicker. Then gently press it into pre-moistened soil in a container so that one third of the cutting is in the soil. Water thoroughly then do not water again until the soil has begun to dry. This is to prevent your cutting from rotting. Place the cutting in a sunny window and continue watering only when the soil starts to dry out.
Roots should start to develop within a few weeks. You will know that roots are growing because your cuttings will be growing new leaves. Plants that don’t have roots cannot grow new leaves. When the roots have filled the pot, it’s time to either transplant it outdoors if you live in the tropics or into a larger, permanent container if you are planning to grow it in a pot.
© 2020 Caren White