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 Bethesda.
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 — 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.
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. It is certainly hard to grasp here that much of the nation is gripped by drought.
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 Washington 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.
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.
He also cuts back the trees to fit them in the cellar. The trunk typically forms a Y and then the plant branches. Barefoot cuts them back to just above a branch zone, which keeps the tree shape and promotes a nice bushy canopy the following year.
Breeders have developed hundreds of varieties in recent years, though many of the differences aren’t that stark. There are variegated forms, double forms and some that have stronger salmon coloration to them.
Barefoot takes me to his back deck, where a brug out of bloom is growing in a 20-inch clay pot. This is a coveted variety named Herrenhauser Garten, whose trumpets aren’t that fragrant or particularly large, but they are a rich orange and double-flowered.
Part of the allure of the plant is its place in Andean culture. Used in certain rituals, it produces psychotropic effects, but it is seriously poisonous. Like the edible tomato and pepper, the brugmansia is a member of the nightshade family. Shamans use extracts from it to induce in their subjects fearful summonings of spirits. Hallucinogens made from brugmansia are considered the most potent and dangerous in the shamans’s arsenal. According to an account in a new book about brugmansias, “Huanduj: Brugmansia,” its chemical compounds “can result in madness, irreversible physiological damage, and even death.” In short, don’t let any person or animal ingest leaf, root, flower, seed or any other bit of this plant. It is best, of course, just to feast your eyes on brugmansias.
“They are basically weeds, but they are beautiful,” Barefoot says. They are so easy to root from cuttings that he stopped buying them from catalogues years ago.
In a few short weeks he will be moving the brugs and his other plants into a large greenhouse in the back yard — the enterprise is long and laborious. But for now, the brugmansias and their jungle friends are at their most lush.
“This,” he says, craning his neck skyward, “is getting out of control.”
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