Angel's heavenly scent

Special to The Times

Brugmansia that floral exhibitionist also known as angel's trumpet, has much to recommend, including rapid growth, handsome foliage and gloriously colored flowers. It is the nocturnal perfume, however, that devotees say is virtually impossible to resist.

For eight years, Wanda Teays of Silver Lake has watched her angel's trumpet surge from an 18-inch twig to a dense, 20-foot-high canopy with 17 branches that droop with double-white blossoms. They open by the hundreds in bursts from March through November, releasing their powerful fragrance at night.

Along the coast the plant does even better: It's in almost perpetual bloom. In Pacific Palisades, jewelry designer Candace Medress and her neighbor Betty Morgan share the sight and scent of each other's angel's trumpet. Medress' shrubby single-white peeks over a backyard fence, and Morgan's tree-shaped hybrid 'Charles Grimaldi' blossoms golden-orange on her front porch.

"I took out a rose and popped it in," Morgan says. "It seems to like that spot."

Turns out angel's trumpet manages to thrive in many spots. Brugmansia is a genus of tree-like shrubs in the Solanaceae, or nightshade family. All seven wild species plus hybrids hail from the Andean slopes of Colombia, Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador and Chile.

Flowers can be flared, funnel-shaped or tubular, in shades of white, yellow, pink, orange and red. Most hang at a 45-degree angle. All are scented at night and pollinated by moths except for the odorless B. sanguinea, which is pollinated by hummingbirds.

Until 1973, botanists lumped angel's trumpet with datura, a more familiar name to gardeners that is now used only for smaller, short-lived relatives including one native with foul-smelling leaves, jimson weed.

South Americans have cultivated the plants for their beauty and medicinal uses since the Stone Age, though all parts of angel's trumpet are highly toxic. Europeans have grown them -- in containers, over-wintered in hothouses and basements -- for two centuries.

Rare in this region until the 1980s, angel's trumpet is finally enjoying its day in the California sun -- and shade. The plants flourishes in either.

"There are so many new varieties," says Steve Brigham, a brugmansia buff and co-owner of Buena Creek Gardens, a retail nursery in San Marcos, Calif. He says his angel's trumpet "repertoire" includes 25 varieties planted at the nursery and around his home.

"There have been real advancements in the last 20 years, especially with double flowers and variegated plants. 'Snowbank' is one of the best variegated plants I've ever seen," Brigham says, citing a hybrid with huge peach-colored bells and dark green leaves edged in creamy white.

The Internet has changed everything, he adds. "They're selling brugmansias on EBay -- though you don't always know what you're getting."

Because brugmansia is easy to propagate from seedlings and cuttings, a proliferation of inferior, improperly labeled, disease-ridden plants are making their way into gardens. "People are breeding them without knowledge or a goal," says Patrice Dreckmann, a hybridizer and technical director of Rainbow Heights Nursery and Research, a wholesale nursery in northern San Diego County with almost an acre devoted to angel's trumpet. The result: weak varieties.

Dreckmann is partial to B. versicolor, a species whose flowers hang straight down and can grow to 20 inches. But his breeding goals focus on the traits of a tough garden plant: cold-hardiness, disease-resistance, longer-lasting flowers and strong, welldeveloped roots.

"My goal is top quality," says Monika Gottschalk, a German brugmansia collector and prolific hybridizer for almost 30 years. Her collection includes seven species, 145 selected hybrids and hundreds of seedings.

"I keep genealogical records. A breeder must be able to criticize his own product," Gottschalk adds. "And when I have bred a hybrid of better quality, another one will be culled."

'Charles Grimaldi,' the floriferous sweet-scented hybrid in Betty Morgan's garden, was named for a gardener in the Bay Area and developed by nurseryman Brigham and hybridizer A. Bartley Schwartz.

Brigham says 'Charles Grimaldi' combines the qualities of its parents: the color and large flowers of 'Hetty Krauss,' a giant orange discovered in Colombia by (and named for) a Leisure World resident but later sold as 'Dr. Seuss,' and the excellent climate tolerance and garden vigor of B. suaveolens 'Frosty Pink.'

Gottschalk advises first-time growers to choose a robust species or hybrid that suits their climate zone. Species from low elevations fare better where summers are hot. High-elevation species (including the scentless B. sanguinea) prefer coastal conditions and will not flower inland. Most gardeners grow hybrids, whose needs vary depending on parentage and genetics.

Few of Gottschalk's hybrids are available in the U.S., though several will be released soon from the mandatory two-year quarantine imposed by the Department of Agriculture. Why such stiff regulations? It seems that brugmansias, close relatives to the tomato and tobacco, are riddled with viruses -- incurable pathogens that have the potential to infect agricultural crops.

Gardeners needn't worry as long as they start with good plants and keep them fit. Brugmansia doesn't want rich soil. It tolerates sun and considerable shade but appreciates a wide berth with good air circulation. It needs regular water, especially when young, and it's a heavy feeder.

According to Ulrike and Hans-Georg Preissel, authors of "Brugmansia and Datura: Angel's Trumpets and Thorn Apples," the definitive reference, "Angel's trumpets that are heavily fertilized will produce four to five times as many flowers as those that are not."

Adds Brigham: "Feed as much as possible, starting in early spring, so they'll grow faster than the bugs."

Dreckmann recommends a weak solution every week during the growing season, high nitrogen at the beginning for vigor and leaf growth, then higher phosphorus and potassium for flower and root development and to fortify cell walls against winter chill.

Though brugmansia is Andean, a light frost can damage tip growth, and temperatures in the mid-20s can level a plant. If cold weather threatens, or if your plant is too big, leggy or ratty, hack it back to a few inches. New stems will emerge with gusto come spring.

Just remember: It is poisonous.

And yet so beautiful. Two years ago, Wanda Teays planted a second angel's trumpet -- a single pink with darker edges -- at the end of a path at the bottom of her garden. It's already taller than she is, and it blooms in concert with her massive double-white. "I grow them for the flowers," Teays says, "but the plants are amazing to look at without them. I had no idea what was coming. That's why gardening is so much fun. It's the element of unpredictability that makes it a real joy."

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Lili Singer can be reached at home@latimes.com.

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Where to find the trumpets

Lili Singer

Brugmansia, or angel's trumpet, is a leafy South American shrub known for its rapid growth and generous bursts of scented blossoms. Here are some ways to immerse yourself in its beauty:

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Gardens: See full-grown brugmansia in flower at many public gardens, including the Getty Center on the Westside, (310) 440-7300; Mildred E. Mathias Botanical Garden at UCLA, (310) 825-1260; Descanso Gardens in La Canada Flintridge, (818) 949-4200; Los Angeles County Arboretum & Botanic Garden in Arcadia, (626) 821-3222; and South Coast Botanic Garden on the Palos Verdes Peninsula, (310) 544-6815. Call first to make sure they're in bloom, and ask if it's ever possible to visit after dusk to experience the potent perfume, which attracts nocturnal moths that pollinate the flowers.

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Website: Visit www.abads.net, the website of the American Brugmansia & Datura Society, for a photo gallery of species and varieties, plus information on collecting, breeding and care. A guest forum welcomes questions from nonmembers.

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Book: "Brugmansia and Datura: Angel's Trumpets and Thorn Apples," by Ulrike and Hans-Georg Preissel (Firefly Books, 2002, $35 hardcover, $19.95 paperback).

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-- Lili Singer

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