brugmansia, iochroma, papyrus and more, with bryon martin of logee’s
I CALLED BYRON MARTIN of Logee’s Greenhouses for his advice on some begonia questions, and then—like plant-mad people are inclined to do—we quickly ricocheted from the genus Begonia in the Begonia family across the taxonomic landscape to another world. We landed on a couple of showy Nightshade family or Solanaceous plants, specifically Brugmansia and one of its smaller-scale cousins I’d never even heard of.
As our conversation took that unexpected turn, from Begonia to Brugmansia and beyond, apparently my plans for what I’ll grow in pots in the garden this summer shifted, too. Long-blooming brugmansias in a range of colors—some not so big as the traditional types I’d known, and even one that makes a good big basket (top photo)—sounded really good. Other gems from South America and South Africa, some with hummingbird-attracting flowers and others (like Papyrus) just exciting for it’s form and foliage, caught my ear, too.
Byron Martin of the famed Logee’s retail and mail-order nursery in Connecticut was my guest on the May 2, 2016 edition of the public-radio show and podcast, and he’ll probably shake up your idea of annual color as well. Read along while you listen in using the player below (or at this link). And be sure to enter the giveaway for two $25 Logee’s gift certificates I’ll buy for lucky readers.
brugmansia, iochroma and more: a tropical q&a with byron martin
Q. Shall we start with Brugmansia–the angel’s trumpets? I have to confess I haven’t grown one in a long time, but it looks like there are some interesting colors and other developments in the catalog.
A. Brugmansias have been around for a long time, and in recent years there has been a bit more hybridization done with them, which has brought out some of the better qualities of them. That would be increasing flower production in the summertime, which has always been an issue, and also some change in the growth habit.
Typically if you go to species or some of the primary crosses of those species that come out of the Andes Mountains, they grow to be pretty good-sized plants. They can get up to 20 feet or more.
They don’t really form what we think of as a tree, but more of a big mound of vegetation and growth.
The older hybrids tend to flower—at least for us—several times a year, particularly going into late summer. In the greenhouses they would flower for longer periods, but outside, it would be a couple of cycles of bloom, and then winter would come—the freezes would come and the growing season would end.
In recent years, there has been some hybridization. We did one here, called ‘Angel’s Summer Dream,’ which is an orange but tends to grow very low, and to produces flowers pretty much continuously.
The interesting thing about Brugmansia is that when they start out as a young cutting or a seedling, they go up, and at some point they begin to fork—they divide into two leads. At that point is where flower production usually starts. If you ever get a plant, or take a cutting of a plant, no matter what you do it’s going to send out a central leader, and at some point it’s going to stop, and fork—and usually as I said that’s the beginning of flower production.
So when we did this breeding we were looking for plants that did that forking from seedlings very, very young. That selection that we did off of ‘Angel’s Summer Dream’ [photo top of page, and flower detail below] came out of that, yet once it starts to create that flowering lead, that lead will just continue producing buds.
The idea is to select for plants that will quickly do that—and will continue to throw flowers out. Some flower better than others. We have an older hybrid, it’s a candida double that’s in the greenhouses, and it is never out of flower in our greenhouses. It flowers in the winter, too. But—if you take a cutting of it and put it in a pot it takes forever to get going. Once it does get going, it becomes very floriferous and productive, however it’s not really productive for a summer garden because you may see some flowers in August.
Q. That was the thing with my old Brugmansia, many years ago. I don’t even know if it was a named one. It got bigger and bigger and bigger, and it was like waiting all summer long for the moment when it would finally flower. It was fabulous, but you’re talking about something that can give us the enjoyment of flowers over a longer period of time, once the plant is of flowering age.
A. Right, so you need to get the plants to start younger, and to go into that continuous flower production. So ‘Angel’s Summer Dream’ was somewhat of a breakthrough and came off of ‘Inca Sun,’ which was one of the parents, and was also a good bloomer. We use it for baskets, because for a cutting it only goes up 6 inches of so and then it will throw off these flowering leaves.
Q. I was so surprised at the picture on the website. I had never seen one that wasn’t more tree-like—and I don’t mean giant tree, but a trunk and a head up top, a few feet above. I hadn’t seen one that could be grown as a basket.
A. It can be grown in a basket, and if you wanted to make a standard out of it, or tree corm out of it, you’d probably have to coach it along a little bit, with a stake, because it’s going to go into flower freer than others.
The other thing we’ve done was when we had some seedlings that came in from a breeder in England, that has been using Brugmansia sanguinea. Now sanguinea is known as the red Brugmansia; it’s really more orange, but some tend toward red.
Sanguinea is a high-elevation plant—they go great out in San Francisco. If you go to Golden Gate Park and the Strybing Arboretum, they have marvelous displays of this plant. It’s always cool, never gets hot there. In Connecticut, we struggle with it. It grows great in the wintertime, and you can flower it maybe in the spring and late fall. Although it’s a beautiful flower and a stunning plant, it really doesn’t adapt too well to Connecticut—and worse so as you go South.
However there has been some breeding done on it, where they have crossed some of these lower-elevation arborea types—whenever you think of Brugmansia, that would be one species you think of. With the sanguinea [combined with arborea] they’ve come out with some very interesting hybrids.
We did two selections from it. One was ‘Moonlight Glow’ [above], which is white and has this long spur on it. I wouldn’t call sanguinea dwarf, but it is more compact in its nature—so it creates a much denser head of growth, rather than having something that really legs up on you, and has a long internode to it.
There was a selection that we did that came out that was a light pink, ‘Blushing Ballerina.’ The interesting thing about both of these, other than the fact they are beautiful flowers (though somewhat smaller than the typical Brugmansia) is they have the most marvelous fragrance to them.
It’s so much different. Don’t get me wrong; the regular Brugmansia is the most intoxicating thing you can have in your night garden, but these actually have a different fragrance to them. It’s quite tantalizing, and like the standard Brugmansia you have to wait until evening to smell it. It certainly is worth growing.
Both of those two new hybrids have this sort of contained-ness to them. They’re not dwarf or small like ‘Angel’s Summer Dream;’ they will go up. Once they start blooming they get these very dense heads. The flower production on them has been pretty continuous. We’ve used them as centerpieces in pots, as standards, and pretty much all summer there are blooms on them.
Obviously there are days when there are a lot of blooms, and days when there are a few, but it never stops; it continues throughout summertime.
Q. If I want to make a Brugmansia happy, what’s the basic care? For instance, you ship plants in 4-inch pots, and it’s going to need more room pretty quickly, right?
A. They grow like weeds.
A. Remember, these are the tomato-potato-pepper family—and don’t ever forget that. They grow very fast. One grower told me: “If you think you fed your Brugmansia enough, feed it again.” They really are heavy, heavy feeders.
In the summertime you can grow them in containers—or you can plant them in the ground and then lift them in fall. That’s another option.
Q. I think that’s a great idea and maybe that people don’t know that. In the last years of my (rest in peace) old Brugmansia, that’s what I did. And then I would lift it and lay it on the basement floor in the winter. But you can—you can put it in the ground.
A. Dig them up, and get some of the rootball and stuff them in a pot and chop them back hard. And as you said: All of these do really well overwintered in basements, even warmer basements, as long as you remember to go down there and keep the roots damp from time to time.
Q. You said “chop them back”?
A. I usually don’t; I usually bring them in, and they drop all the leaves and make a huge mess…
A. …then you sweep up the leaves. And then I just leave the plants there [without cutting back]. I don’t know if it would really matter if you’re leaving enough tissue and limbs and stems so that if they sometimes die back, it gives them something to die back to. I know from my family, back the 1920s when they were doing a lot of landscaping in town, they had several of these Brugmansia trunks that they would put in the root cellar in wintertime, and just cover the roots over, laying them down like you did.
In springtime they’d bring them out and stick them into whatever the plantings were at the mills around time. It went on for years—that was the old suaveolens types, and we actually still have some of those old plants. They have trunks on them that are probably 5 or 6 inches across.
A. That was the old suaveolens, the typical white one that you’d see at that time.
Q. So sun, and feed it—even if you think you already fed it. What about water?
A. Full sun. And don’t put it under heavy wilt stress. They transpire quite freely because they have soft leaves, so you have to keep your eye on it.
That means up-potting them—getting them into bigger pots, into larger containers. The smaller the pot and bigger the plant, the more you have to water it, so you can reduce your watering by moving them up into larger containers. We would probably grow them in a 15- or 20-gallon pot.
If you’re wintering them over year to year, in springtime you can take them out and just about now you can root prune them. They take very well to that. Take your plant out of the pot, chop off one-third of the soil, and then put it into fresh soil. That will kind of give the plant a new root system to work on, new soil to work on, and perhaps contain it a little more as it goes into the summertime.
Q. Let’s move on to this Brugmansia cousin, the genus Iochroma. I confess to never having grown Iochroma that you told me about the other day–so assuming listeners many not have, either, will you paint a visual picture of this so-called “mini angel’s trumpet”? [Above: ‘Royal Queen’ purple hybrid.]
A. Iochroma is in the same family, as you mentioned, and there were some species we grew years ago and they didn’t flower very well, but they were showy when they did.
Recently–and I mean in the last couple of decades or a little longer than that—they have done some hybridizing that has got some very different color forms. They’re also got the size of the flowers up, and the clusters up. So in taking another look at this from the days of the old species to what these hybrids are, they’re quite showy, and well worth growing.
They’re not as tall as Brugmansias; in a season they might get up to 3 feet. But once they get into full sun and you give them some feed—don’t overdo the Nitrogen, but give them a good balanced feed—they’ll start producing flowers that will be pretty much continuous throughout the summertime going into fall.
In the greenhouses, we even flower them all season. We have a couple of large plants in the greenhouses that are never out of bloom; you can always find some flowers on them.
For the seasonal-growing ones, you get the young plant potted up and usually by the time you get into July, they start to bud up, and they’ll continue right on through.
We have one called ‘Aschott Red’ [below], which is really kind of an orangey color—there’s no true deep red.
Q. That’s the one I saw and thought, “Oooh, that’s my kind of color.” And it said hummingbirds like it.
A. It has that long, tubular flower and they form in clusters, which get pretty heavy. Again, don’t overdo the Nitrogen because that will push them out of flower. But a good balanced feed, and continuous with it, and if you want to to-dress with some organics to keep the fertilizer going into them. If you starve them you’re going to slow that flower production down.
Believe it or not—I’ve never tried it, because we bring them into the greenhouses—but a good, heavy plant would probably do the same thing as the Brugmansias. You’d get that to report for you; you’ve got to get a fairly good-sized trunk on it, but they take a lot of that kind of cold stress, like a basement and dark in the wintertime.
The original ones were blues, but there are purples, and we have one called ‘Wine Red’ [below], which really kind of looks like wine and red…
Q. [Laughter.] Well, that’s a good name then.
A. …and ‘Royal Queen’ is a very dark purple. You have to remember that like with brugmansias, they’re Solanaceous, and if they get out of hand you just chop them back and within a couple of weeks they’ve filled out again, and in another week or two they’re back into flower. If you need to prune them at all they take very well to that.
Q. I read in the catalog that the leaves are a little bit felted maybe, or textural…what are the leaves like?
A. Both Brugmansia and Iochroma have a kind of a furry leaf to them—they have a fuzz on them. And they are kind of soft. The older ones usually had a kind of off smell to them. On a cloudy day in the greenhouses, they’d always have this off smell. But these hybrids don’t have that.
Q. That was a good thing to breed out. [Laughter.]
A. They really are quite showy, though, and my error was the first time I saw them I said, “Ah, that can’t be worth anything,” because I knew the old varieties. But you never want to make assumptions; not in the world of plants.
Q. So this is another plant of South American origin; its parentage is, like Brugmansia’s.
A. Yes, New World tropics.
Q. You said a little about overwinter it. Could I also try it in a bright coolish but not cold spot? What’s the greenhouse like where you say you have them all winter?
A. If you put them in a cold spot that probably would shut them down. We grow them at 60 degrees or a little warmer, to keep them flowering.
We had some new varieties come in, and one was frosted around the edge, and we put it in a cold greenhouse that went down to 40 for a good part of the winter, but it was very bright and sunny in there.
They didn’t go out of flower, but it did slow them down a lot. We turned the heat up and they immediately came right back into bloom and growth.
Q. If we move from South America plants to South Africa now, there is a vine in the catalog I am curious about: Podranea.
A. Podranea brycei, yes. [Above.]
Q. How big does it get and so on? It’s in the Bignoniaceae.
A. This is an interesting vine. We grew a variety of that, which is called Podranea ricasoliana, which is very popular particularly in Hawaii. I don’t see too much of it in Florida, but particularly in the Hawaiian Islands you see it all over the place. I had brought it back many times—you’d see it and say, “Whoa, it’s so beautiful.”
A. And I’d bring it back and put it in a pot and then the thing would just vine all over the greenhouse, and it wouldn’t flower because the light level was too low. It didn’t like Connecticut. And then I’d finally throw it out, and then I’d try it again.
I was in Florida in a nursery that had a lot of really off stuff, and I saw this Podranea, and I thought, “I know that.” I asked the owner about it, and he said it was a different species that the one I had been growing previously. It was just a mound of flowers.
Q. You said, “I know that, and it doesn’t like Connecticut.” [Laughter.]
A. Yes. So I took one home, and I was just so surprised. The plant went right into flower. You have to remember it’s a vine, so if you grew it for a long period of time it would start climbing all over the place. But the plants that we grow as young plants, we can take ones in a 2½- or 4-inch pot if you want to make a big show put two or three in a bigger pot, and give it a pinch, put it outside for the summer, and by midsummer that thing is in full bloom. In that first season, it will never really turn into a vine. It will just be a thing with pink flowers on it all summer long.
It also took well to our cool greenhouses all winter. It didn’t flower too well, but it took well to them, which means that it can be wintered over under more stress than you think. It’s very fast-growing and of course that’s what makes it come into bloom quickly.
So if you were using it as a summer annual, and you wanted to maintain it inside, you just simply take your pruning shears out and prune it back as much as needed.
We do have it flower in the wintertime in the greenhouses with a southern exposure—we see flower pretty much throughout the wintertime. It does tend to slow down a bit, so you’ll get a little more growth before the flowers, but it is a pretty much ever-bloomer here in Connecticut. A stunning plant.
Q. For those of us who are crazy about foliage, which I am: Papyrus. You seem to have a thing for Papyrus, yes. [Laughter.]
A. I love Papyrus. We don’t make paper from it, but it’s just one of those really cool, really fast tropical plants that puts on a show throughout the summertime. Obviously they love water and they love fertilizer.
If you’re doing mixed containers—you don’t even need a water garden. We sometimes plant those in the garden, just stick them in the ground. Make sure you keep them fed and watered. They can turn into these marvelous plants; beautiful shows. They do give that tropical look to any garden or container.
Q. What kind of light do they like?
A. Papyrus are for full sun. If you put them under lower light they slow their growth down, and the stems don’t have as much rigidity to them, to hold them up. We have a couple of plants we keep around year-round in the greenhouses, and even in the cold greenhouses they handle, and they can go up 7 or 8 feet.
A. The first year out of a pot you will probably only get 3 or 4 feet out of it, but you will get those nice, big tufts that come out.
Q. It’s like this crazy, textural thing—like rockets bursting in air. Very different. Would I be able to overwinter that as an investment plant?
A. You can do that, but it’s not going to take low light. It has to be high light, and preferably cool, believe it or not. You can chop them back, because it is a rhizome that grows. If you bring them in for the wintertime, you could cut off a good amount of the stems so they don’t take up so much room. And make sure you dig the rhizome, or you have your rhizome in your pot, and at least leave one or two leads on that to get you going through the winter.
I have tried them in the cellar over the winter, but that didn’t work.
Q. [Laughter.] Another failed experiment—but that’s why we keep on trying, don’t we? Last question: Of all the things at Logee’s, what’s the most popular? The thing people know you for?
A. We’ve been known for begonias for years. It’s been 100-some-odd years—since 1892, if someone wants to do the math—and Logee’s has moved through many phases. In my time, although I still grow and hybridize begonias, I probably have moved a lot into the flowering and fragrant plants. We also do a lot with tropical fruiting plants that you can grow in pots.
Crazy things like grow a mango in a sunroom—and citrus are well-adapted to that. Logee’s has morphed into many things, but we still have quite a reputation for our work with begonias, though.
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