Plant common names are annoyingly imprecise but they often capture the appeal of a plant better than their real names. Take Brugmansia, better known as angels trumpet. For once this isn’t a case of common hyperbole. The flowers really are the size of a trumpet, albeit a small one, and have an elegance about them that is quite angelic. Some even have petals that curve upwards in slender ribbons that are very wing-like. The flowers are so lovely that it seems a shame that their real name remembers a Dutch physician, Sebald Justinus Brugmans, who was an expert in the treatment of gangrene.
While Brugmansia have nothing to do with gangrene, they do serve as medicine for indigenous people in their native central and South America. There they are used as medicine; in negotiations with the spirit world; and in what ethnobotanists describe as chemically-triggered ethno psychotherapy. All parts of the plants are poisonous, and they contain psychoactive substances. When the conquistadors arrived in what is now Bogata, Colombia, in 1537, the locals drugged them with a brugmansia-laced drink, and sent them all into wild hallucinations. Attempts by Australians to experiment with this aspect of the plant (median age 18, 82% male) have led to hospitalisation for tachycardia and delirium, with associated accidental injury.
The history and cultural uses of the plant are fascinating (find out more in ‘Huanduj: Brugmansia’, written by Australian expert Alistair Hay, with Monika Gottschalk and Adolfo Holguin, published by Florilegium) but the best reason to grow them is that they are fantastic garden plants for Sydney. Every drenching rain is followed a few weeks later by an amazing show of flowers that covers the whole plant. In my frost-free garden, brugmansias flower all year, or until I prune them. They are apt to drop leaves and flowers when the chill sets in and are at their dramatic best now and into autumn. The most common form is apricot, though there are also white, gold and any number of shades of pink. Bees love them and a big shrub in full bloom is abuzz with action.
Brugmansia can be grown as a multi-stemmed shrub, or trained to a single stem like a small tree. They can be pruned and kept to a desired size, or left alone, save for the removal of dead growth and rubbing branches. You can arrange for a canopy of flower atop a border, or for flowers right down to ground level, depending on how you use the secateurs from early in the plant’s life. They need sun for good flowering, and though a hot summer afternoon will make them limp they’ll bounce back at dusk. And as night falls they will start to release their perfume, which given their common name, I just have to describe as heavenly.