Tropical Exotics Thrive in Valley Garden

angel's trumpet (Brugmansia 'Inca Gold'At first glance, Jerry Esten’s affable and relaxed demeanor strikes you as that of someone who could be retired, more or less.
But when you take a stroll through his backyard and see the large variety of exotic species that he grows, together with a crystal-clear, turtle- friendly water garden and a large greenhouse, you quickly realize that Esten’s horticultural efforts approximate those of a full-time gardener.
I had never seen a coffee plant produce fruit in the Valley until being confronted with a robust specimen thriving in a container on Esten’s shaded patio. The plant is bedecked with a plenitude of coffee cherries, or fruit, which, although green, will eventually turn red, each containing two coffee beans, or seeds.
Coffee (Coffea arabica) is a relative of gardenia, but the latter requires significantly more sun than Esten’s coffee plant in order to produce its distinctively perfumed flowers.
Esten is especially proud of Moringa seedlings reared in his greenhouse. This tropical plant (Moringa oleifera) is touted as the most nutritious species on Earth and is highly drought-tolerant. Moringa leaves are nutrient-packed and, ounce for ounce, contain three times more vitamin A than carrots, three times more calcium than milk, three times more potassium than bananas, seven times more vitamin C than oranges, and twice as much protein as yogurt.
While discoursing on the subject of edibles, Esten points to his tapioca (Manihot grahamii “Hardy Tapioca”), a tough tropical that has striking parasol foliage. Tapioca is in the euphorbia family and its edible tuberous roots contain toxins that must be extracted, through boiling, prior to consumption.
Esten is also growing sea oats (Chasmanthium latifolium), a sturdy perennial grass for sun or partial shade that resembles bamboo. In addition to its graceful swaying- in-a-breeze garden presence, it displays seed heads that turn copper in the fall and are suitable for dry flower arrangements and bouquets.
Through his popular website,, Esten made acquaintance with a gardener who sent him samples of “Inca Gold,” a heavy flowering angel’s trumpet (Brugmansia) variety. In terms of flowers per square inch, ‘Inca Gold’ puts commonly seen Brugmansias to shame.
Brugmansia, named after the Dutch naturalist Sebald Brugmans, has many characteristics that the ornamental plant connoisseur finds desirable. Its hanging trumpets impart a weeping quality that is almost universally embraced by plant enthusiasts. The flowers themselves can reach 10 inches in length, and may be set cheek by jowl on the plant, creating a dense floral tapestry. And the flowers are fragrant, especially at night, when they attract pollinating moths.
The hawk moth – which, in its larval or caterpillar form is known as the tomato hornworm – has a long proboscis that is especially well-suited to harvesting the nectar found at the base of Brugmansia’s trumpet flowers.
Brugmansia may grow to a height of 20 feet, producing hundreds of flowers during the latter part of spring, summer and early fall. The fragrance of a single plant can perfume an entire garden. Especially fragrant are the double white Brugmansias; each flower consists of two gleaming white trumpets nested one inside the other.
In the Los Angeles area, Brugmansia is a perennial that can live for 20 years or more and is not killed by light frost.
From the standpoint of maintenance, the most welcome characteristic of angel’s trumpet is its semi-succulent growth. This means that you do not have to be an expert to prune this plant effectively. Almost any sort of moderate cutting back in early spring can be done without concern that flower production, later in the season, will be compromised.
Despite its moderate frost tolerance, Brugmansia cannot abide the deeper cold of the Antelope Valley. In that area, however, it can still be grown in a container that, during the winter, should be placed against a west- or south-facing wall. To be extra safe, move the plant indoors during the winter, and reduce watering to a bare minimum. Angel’s trumpet does experience a distinct winter dormancy period.
Planted in the ground, angel’s trumpet seems to grow best in half-day sun to bright shade (under a tall tree), and should definitely be protected from the wind. The soil around it should be kept slightly moist – a 3-inch layer of mulch is highly beneficial in this respect.
Brugmansia leaves tend to be paler by nature than the foliage of most other plants, but some experts still advise fertilizing it on a monthly basis during the growing season. Fertilizer recommended for palm trees – such as the Whitney Farms formulation – has proven to be especially effective on angel’s trumpets.
One word of caution: Brugmansia is a member of the potato, or nightshade, family (Solanaceae) and all of its parts are toxic.
Elephant fig (Ficus roxburghii) is another standout plant in Esten’s garden. Its oversized leaves emerge bronzish red and impart a bold yet soft and welcoming effect. It is sensitive to frost and not widely planted.
Esten propagated his elephant fig specimens from cuttings that he rooted in his greenhouse.
In its East Asian tropical habitat, its large, trunk-hugging figs are sweetly edible. Unfortunately, the tiny fig wasp that crawls inside the elephant fig fruit to pollinate its flowers – and it’s this sort of mini-wasp pollination that gives all figs their flavor – cannot be imported and so the fruit produced on California-grown specimens is bland.
Tip of the week
Selma Paul, who gardens in Sunland, emailed the following: “My husband planted seeds of edelweiss (Leontopodium alpinum) two years ago. We now have six plants in 1-gallon containers and 20 blooming flowers. The flowers are an inch or more in diameter on 3- to 4-inch stems. Is this something special for our climate? Are we lucky to have grown them thus far?” Edelweiss is indigenous to the Swiss Alps, where it is an endangered species due to poaching by climbers and hikers. Edelweiss is a member of the daisy and sunflower family (Asteraceae) and has pleasantly pungent astral flowers with silver foliage. It prefers somewhat alkaline soil and fast drainage, so it would probably grow well in decomposed granite or, as in your case, in custom-made, highly porous potting soil. It is cold hardy and should grow just fine in the Antelope Valley.

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