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Growing Brugmansia and Datura, the deadly beauties

Brugmansia or Angels Trumpets, beautiful but deadly.
Brugmansia or Angels Trumpets, beautiful but deadly.
Wikimedia commons

You will see the beautiful Angel’s Trumpets advertised in many garden catalogs or you may see a plant called Devils Trumpets or Moon Flower being grown in gardens or even along roadsides. The plants have pretty trumpet or funnel shaped flowers that are often fragrant. These plants are either Brugmansia or Datura, two pretty but very poisonous plants often grown for their ornamental qualities. Of the two, Brugmansia makes the better ornamental plant and is not likely to become a dangerous toxic weed like the Datura’s. But how do you tell the difference?

Brugmansia and Datura are plants belong to the Solanaceae ( nightshade) family, the same family that tomatoes and potatoes come from. For a long time the two genera Brugmansia and Datura were lumped together. Modern botanists have separated them into the two genera, with Brugmansia generally regarded as having 9 species and Datura 7 species although those alternate and change as arguments over genetics get resolved.

Brugmansia and Datura both originate in South and Central America, although they can come from many different climates in those countries. Some Datura may have originated in Tunisia, this is being studied. Datura’s however, have long been naturalized in many warm climate countries. There are literally hundreds of named varieties of Brugmansia with many hybrids between the species. Daturas have far fewer named varieties. The two genera do not hybridize naturally although breeders are attempting to do so with modern genetic manipulations.

Brugmansia species go by the common names of Angel’s Trumpet or Devil’s Trumpet. Datura, owing to its ability to naturalize easily in many areas of the world has many common names, Thornapple, Jimson Weed, Locoweed, Devils Trumpet, Angels Trumpet, and Moon Flower are just a few. (Do not confuse them with the morning glory like vine also called Moon Flowers). Datura seed may also be offered under the name Toloache. In catalogs Brugmansia and Datura are often confused.

Brugmansia species are semi-woody perennials, forming bush or small tree shapes. In the wild some species are 30 or more feet high. Datura species are either herbaceous annuals or short lived tender perennials. Both have similar long oval leaves, sometimes toothed, that can get quite large. Datura leaves are often fuzzy or hairy. The stems of Datura often have a touch of reddish purple. Brugmansia foliage tends to be a darker green than Datura foliage and there are Brugmansias with variegated foliage.

The flowers of Brugmansia typically dangle downward although some face out horizontally. Datura flowers typically face upwards. Brugmansia flowers come in a wide range of colors from white to peach, rose, pink, lavender orange and recently red. There are many double flowered Brugmansia varieties. Datura flowers are usually white, sometimes lavender or pale pink and usually single flowered, but double flowered varieties exist. Both Datura and Brugmansia have scented species, the smell is strongest at night. Datura flowers open in the late afternoon and evening hours and close during the day.

Datura flowers are self- fertile and will grow true from seed. The flowers produce a round, four chambered seed capsule that is covered in spines in most Datura species. When the pod is ripe it bursts and throws seed over a wide area. Those seeds can survive cold winters and sprout in the spring.

Brugmansia flowers are not self – fertile and they do not come true from seed. When breeders find a Brugmansia plant they like they propagate it by cuttings. Brugmansia seed pods look like a bean pod with a corky covering in some species. Brugmansia seed rarely survives a cold winter.

Culture of Brugmansia and Datura

Brugmansia are usually purchased as rooted cuttings. Most catalogs show large plants loaded with beautiful flowers but be aware that it can take two years for that little potted plant to get to blooming size and many years before it makes a large plant. They are generally kept as tub plants and overwintered inside. Temperatures must be kept above 40 degrees F. In zone 8 and above they can be planted directly in the garden. (Some zone 7 gardeners have had success overwintering Brugmansia outside. The plants die to the ground and then are heavily mulched.)

For tub plants use a non-soil potting medium and do not plant the cutting in too large of a pot, let it nearly fill the pot with roots, then transplant to a larger pot. Indoors the plants should be in as bright of light as possible, preferably a greenhouse or sun room. Plants are moved outside after all danger of frost has passed and the nights are reliably warm. Brugmansia prefers a dappled or partly shaded area when outdoors.

Brugmansia likes moist, well drained potting medium and should be fertilized with a dilute flower fertilizer every other watering or have a slow release flowering plant fertilizer worked into the planting medium. Evenly watered, well fertilized plants in warm conditions and good light usually bloom almost continually once they start blooming.

Datura plants are generally started by seed. It can be hard to find the seed because it is poisonous and in some places Datura seed or plants are illegal, but a few catalogs offer seeds. You will see some double flowered Datura plants offered for sale. Because the seed overwinters and pops up in warmer weather, Datura can become a noxious invading pest and gardeners should think carefully before planting it in gardens. It should not be grown where children, pets or livestock can find the seeds or handle the plants.

Start seed inside 6 weeks before the last frost or directly in the ground after all frost has passed. Datura likes to dry out between watering and shouldn’t be fertilized unless the soil is very poor. Datura prefers full sun. Keep the seed pods cut off so the plants cannot spread to unwanted places. Datura is killed by the frost. While plants growing in zone 8 and above may last more than a year outside, Datura does not overwinter well in pots inside and most species are considered to be annuals.

Dangerous qualities of Brugmansia and Datura

All parts of the Brugmansia or Datura plant are extremely poisonous. Wear gloves when handling the plants and keep plants where they are not likely to be brushed or touched. Keep the plants away from children and pets. It has been reported that long exposure to even the scent of the plants can cause poisoning symptoms. Just a small amount of the plant or seed being ingested can cause serious damage or death, even to large livestock.

Both Datura and Brugmansia contain 3 poisons, atropine, scopolamine and hyoscyamine. Indigenous peoples used the plants various parts in religious and divination ceremonies. In ancient South American cultures a mixture of Datura and beer was used to sedate or kill wives and slaves of a deceased person so that they could be buried with him. Disassociation from reality, a trance like state and amnesia of events occurring under the influence made Datura/Brugmansia one of the original “date rape” drugs. One of the old names for Datura translates to “zombie cucumber.”

Modern attempts to use the plants as a recreational drug usually end tragically and the “high” caused by the plants is not pleasant. There is a very thin line between “divining” and death. How hydrated you are, the place where the plant was grown, weather during which the plant was grown, how the drug is prepared and numerous other factors will determine whether you will live or die after ingesting Datura or Brugmansia. Lingering mental and physical problems often occur if a person survives the dose.

Audio hallucinations are common, which is why some cultures used Datura to “speak to the dead.” Violent behavior and self-mutilation under the influence of the drugs in the plant are also common, with one recent case of a man cutting off both his penis and tongue after ingesting either Datura or Brugmansia tea. Vomiting, diarrhea, foaming at the mouth, heavy sweating, racing heart and difficulty breathing occur. Other symptoms include dilated pupils, severe headache, hyperthermia(high fever),dry mouth and paralysis of smooth muscles. There have been thousands of deaths from Datura/Brugmansia poisoning or overdose across the world. At one point in the 1990’s India had a serious problem with Datura/Brugmansia being used for suicides.

Any person or animal who has ingested any amount of Brugmansia or Datura should be immediately taken to a hospital. A drug called physostigmine can counter the effects of Brugmansia/Datura poisoning if given promptly. Cardiac and respiratory support may be needed and the stomach will be pumped. The patient may need restraints to prevent harm to him/her self.

The Brugmansia and Datura plants are both beautiful and dangerous, an alluring combination for some people. It is strongly recommended that people with children and pets not have either plant in their home or garden. If you do choose to grow them make sure you care for them responsibly. Do not let them form seed, especially Datura. Don’t keep them where the public can touch or take pieces from them easily. The flowers should not be picked or used as cut flowers. Also be aware that some places have laws against owning the plants.

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