Before the lush and leafy tropical look became fashionable again, there were always green-fingered jungle maniacs among us who succeeded in bringing a touch of Brazil or Borneo to the suburbs.
They were usually men, in my experience, perhaps because the rain forest equated with manly danger and sultry temptations in stories like Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” or W. Somerset Maugham’s “Rain.”
An abiding plant in this exotic scene was the angel’s trumpet, then known botanically as the datura and now as brugmansia. Fanciers today call them “brugs.”
Out of bloom, they don’t look like much, but the flowers transform the plant completely, much as the night-blooming cereus goes from scrawny to va-va-voom in the blink of an eye.
The brugmansia grows as a stick, sometimes several sticks together, and after a few weeks its fresh twigs develop into discernible branches. The leaves are soft and pointed, some of them with a velvety feel, and then, every five weeks or so from July to October, the plant produces elongated flower buds that spend a week growing until they burst open in a jaw-dropping display.
Often hanging straight down, they open as cylinders with pinwheels on the end, which unfurl into long pendent trumpets. Typically they open white (many varieties stay that way) before darkening to shades of pink or yellow. Each trumpet can grow to 12 or more inches in length, and a mature brugmansia can have more than 100 trumpets in bloom in one cycle.
They might curl up in the heat of the day, but when the sun sets, the evening becomes one long and heady brugmansia party as they seek to attract their nocturnal pollinators. In the dusk, they emit a fragrance that is cloyingly powerful.
There is no mistaking the brug-mania of Bo Barefoot, a building contractor in Bethesda,Md., who probably has close to 30 brugmansias in the front, back and side of his home in a quiet subdivision.
Some rise to 12 feet or more but aren’t quite as conspicuous as you might imagine, because what began as a brug hobby more than a decade ago gathered into a tropical plant passion that has transformed a once modest bungalow plot into a lush and spellbinding jungle.
The front fence line is dominated by clumps of the hardy banana, Musa basjoo, whose giant leaves stretch upward to 20 feet. Nearby another banana species is now in fruit, with clusters of green fingers. Elsewhere, the muscular Abyssinian banana, Ensete ventricosum, offers huge green sails with its stalks and veins tinged a carmine red. Bananas are just the beginning.
Barefoot has a number of palm trees, including a towering Washingtonia palm and a Bismarckia palm, each of which gets an elaborate winter covering. The jungle reveals a 50-year-old high-trunked sago palm, needle palms, passionflower vines and much else in pots, including pomegranates, plumerias, gardenias and citrus trees. The mild winter and this year’s otherwise unwelcome heat have stirred the vegetation to heights not seen before. If you didn’t know you were in suburban Maryland, you might think yourself in Miami or Key West. In this lushness, finding something as showy as a brugmansia isn’t as easy as it seems.
Barefoot shows me a tall, pink hybrid of Brugmansia versicolor and B. aurea, its bloom cycle now winding down. Brugmansias are native, mostly, to the uplands of South America and sulk in the intense heat of a Mid-Atlantic July. Heat reduces each bloom’s lifespan to a day, but they last several days in cooler weather.
“The flowers are gorgeous and the smell is outrageous,” he says.
Love and care
They make the tending worth it. Brugs need watering daily in hot weather, and for all their somewhat weedy appearance, they respond to heavy feeding. Barefoot fertilizes with a solution of fish emulsion. The tropicals in the ground grow in compost-rich soil and need little additional nutrient.
He grows the brugmansias either in pots or, for his largest specimens, directly in the ground. The latter must be dug up to be taken into the house in October. Before he knew better, he would retain enough of a root system for an enormous 45-gallon plastic container. Now he is more brutal, cutting the roots to fit in a far more manageable 25-gallon pot without shocking the plant.