This cultivated specimen of scarlet angel’s trumpet or red floripontio was photographed in the Berkeley Botanical Garden this past April. Like all members of the genus, it is native to South America: in this case, the mountain slopes of the Andes from northern Colombia to northern Chile at elevations of 2000-300m (6500-9750ft).
The photograph doesn’t provide an idea of scale, so I need to note that the flowers are roughly 20cm (8in) in length. The Preissels, in their book Brugmansia and Datura: Angel’s Trumpets and Thorn Apples, note that Brugmansia sanguinea “is the most wonderfully colored of all” members of the genus, with significant variation in number of colours on the flowers (up to three) and range of colours (from brilliant red to pink, orange to light yellow). Intriguingly, flower colour is correlated with temperature, so flowers developing in the summer will be differently shaded than flowers borne in the autumn. Too hot of conditions, however, will lead to flower development being inhibited in this species.
Unlike other members of the genus, Brugmansia sanguinea is not fragrant. Its pollinator (hummingbirds) doesn’t rely on scent, but instead homes in on the (typically) red colouration.
Members of the Solanaceae often (always?) contain potent alkaloids. In the case of Brugmansia species, scopolamine and related compounds are found in high concentrations. At extremely low doses (e.g., 330 micrograms / day is cited by Wikipedia), scopolamine can be medicinal for purposes of treating nausea or intestinal pain. Somewhat higher doses were/are taken by indigenous peoples of South America to enter a mind-altering state purportedly used to make contact with the gods or spiritual ancestors. This has led to the occasional modern-day recreational usage, but I would say (in my opinion) only in instances of extreme stupidity given that it is: a) easy to take a fatal dose; and b) painful. Here’s an account cited in the book by the Preissels, from J.J. von Tschudi’s observations during travels in Peru between 1838-1842 (so in the public domain, I hope):
“The beautiful red Thorn Apple trees (Datura [Brugmansia] sanguinea) grow at the river’s edge … on the less steep slopes of the mountain. The natives call them Huacacachu, yerba de Huaca or Bovachero and use the fruit to prepare a very strong narcotic drink which they call Tonga. Its effect is terrifying. I once had the opportunity of watching how it affected an Indian who wanted to communicate with the spirits of his ancestors. The ghastly scene is so impregnated in my memory that I will never forget it. Soon after drinking the Tonga, the man fell into a dull brooding, he stared vacantly at the ground, his mouth was closed firmly, almost convulsively and his nostrils were flared. Cold sweat covered his forehead. He was deathly pale. The jugular veins on his throat were swollen as large as a finger and he was wheezing as his chest rose and sank slowly. His arms hung down stiffly by his body. Then his eyes misted over and filled with huge tears and his lips twitched convulsively for a brief moment. His carotids were visibly beating, his respiration increased and his extremities twitched and shuddered of their own accord.”
“This condition would have lasted about a quarter of an hour, then all these actions increased in intensity. His eyes were now dry but had become bright red and rolled about wildly in their sockets and all his facial muscles were horribly distorted. A thick white foam leaked out between his half open lips. The pulses on his forehead and throat were beating too fast to be counted. His breathing was short, extraordinarily fast and did not seem to lift the chest, which was visibly fibrillating. A mass of sticky sweat covered his whole body which continued to be shaken by the most dreadful convulsions. His limbs were hideously contorted. He alternated between murmuring quietly and incomprehensibly and uttering loud, heart-rending shrieks, howling dully and moaning and groaning. This dreadful condition lasted for a long time until gradually the strength of the symptoms abated and peace was restored. Immediately the women hurried over, and washed him all over with cold water and made him comfortable on some sheepskins. He then slept quietly for several hours. In the evening I saw the man again when, surrounded by a circle of attentive listeners, he was relating his visions and his talks with the spirits of his ancestors. He seemed to be very tired. His eyes were glassy, his body was limp and his movements were lethargic.”
And, in case that isn’t enough to dissuade, here is a search on Google for fatal Datura with results pointing to a number of separate incidences of death (often young and male). Datura is a close relative of Brugmansia, with the same set of alkaloids.