Brunfelsia (Solanaceae)

Yesterday-Today-Tomorrow (Potato Family)

Origin: New World Tropics

Brunfelsia is a genus of beautiful blooming shrubs and small trees. Many species have a peculiar habit of color-changing flowers. The most common of these are B. australis and B. grandiflora, which share the common name “yesterday, today, tomorrow” because the petals of their flowers emerge dark purple, then fade to a lavender, then completely to white. These plants are available in the nursery trade and can be grown in the frost-free areas of central and southern Florida. They are relatively drought tolerant once established. B. grandiflora requires a little more sun than B. australis to bloom, but both do best in a bit of shade. In their natural habitat, brunfelsias tend to grow in non-flooding woodlands as an understory shrub. Most species are incredibly fragrant, a smell almost identical to that of the heady petunias, a close relative. Like the petunias, most of the brunfelsias are more heavily scented at nighttime.

There are roughly one hundred and fifty species in the genus Brunfelisa. While the flowers look different, they all have five wide petals. Many species, particularly those native to the islands of the West Indies, have flowers with long corolla tubes that are four or five inches long which hold the rest of the flower at some distance from the plant. These flowers tend to be yellow or cream colored, hold small amounts of nectar, and are heavily fragrant at night, all meant to attract their moth pollinators.

Like most members of the family Solanaceae, many brunfelsias contain toxic and medicinal alkaloids, and have been used by Central and South American Indian tribes for centuries for a variety of reasons. The roots and bark of Brunfelsia grandiflora, called Chiricaspi by some Amazonian tribes, are commonly brewed on their own (scopoletin is apparantly very effective against fevers and depression) or added to ayahuasca brews. Timothy Plowman, an expert in neotropical ethnobotany and an early associate of Selby Gardens, provided the first and only taxanomic treatment of the genus, and a species (B. Plowmanii) is named in his honor. The genus was named after the early German herbalist, Otto Brunfels. The genus is on ASPCA’s list of “Bad Plants,” because of dog and cat toxicity. There have been more than a few cases of poisoned pets involving these deadly beauties. Here at the Marie Selby Botanical Gardens we have many species of Brunfelsia, most of which are currently blooming. Come on by to see and smell the flowers… just don’t eat them.

Text by David Troxell