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 — so potent, in fact, that the next thing the gardener knows, he is wearing a Hawaiian shirt.
If you saw a gardener displaying a brugmansia tree, you knew the owner was serious about this plant, because it takes the better part of decade to get brugmansias to develop a fat trunk that branches high. This entails cutting them back each fall and bringing them inside for the winter. They are stored in a leafless dormancy in a cool cellar or garage, much as you might elephant ears or a tender banana tree.
There is no mistaking the brug-mania of Bo Barefoot, a building contractor in Glen Echo Heights who probably has close to 30 brugmansias in the front, back and side of his home in a quiet subdivision not far from MacArthur Boulevard.
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 fenceline 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.