All you ever wanted to know but didn't know you even needed to ask – and more!
I searched for ages for the single right adjective to describe this book – an almost impossible task, it is so lovely. Sumptuous about does it … this book is a tour de force – chock full of information, beautifully illustrated, meticulously referenced. Huanduj is a monograph in the true sense; a compendium of all known information about a group of organisms. The title may seem a bit obscure to the average reader and might not attract the general buyer of botanical books, but to me it is the icing on the cake. By titling the book with the Quechua name for these wonderful plants the authors firmly lay out their position as cross-cultural ‘plantsmen’ (plantspeople just sounds too strange!) – brugmansias, or tree daturas, are beautiful horticultural novelties, but are also important magical plants in their native lands.
Brugmansias are the wonderful, tropical-looking shrubs and small trees cultivated in the tropics and subtropics year-round, and as summer pot plants in the north temperate zone (although, with the changing climate, mine has lived through the winter for several years in a row in London!). They are yet another member of that oh-so-useful plant family the Solanaceae which also comprises potatoes, tomatoes, aubergines, peppers and ground cherries. The family is odd in that it has members that are agriculturally important crops, but is also replete with plants used as drugs like tobacco and mandrake. Of these latter, the brugmansias are the absolute pinnacle.
Hay, Gottschalk and Holguín have divided the book in two major sections, botany and horticulture. Their combined expertise in these plants is unparalleled and makes for a book that botanists should read to understand horticulture, and vice versa. Nowhere is taxonomy more fraught with difficulties than in cultivated plants. Quandaries about how to treat plants known only from cultivation abound – should they be treated as subspecies of their wild progenitors? As distinct species with Latin names? As cultivars? And their taxonomic history is awash with names given to plants cultivated in botanical gardens and thought to be wild species – no wonder taxonomists avoid these groups and focus on new or rare and endangered species. Huanduj is a model of how such complex systems can be treated; the authors describe all of the ‘botanical’ (read wild – but the authors contend these plants may not even truly exist in the wild, an interesting concept) species and also the hybrids derived from their various combinations in a clear and no-nonsense way. They freely admit that these commonly cultivated hybrids are sometimes impossible to distinguish from their parents. This is refreshing, it is often true but so rarely admitted; nature is messy and sometimes doesn't fit into the nice tidy boxes taxonomists wish it to.
The section on botany treats not only the taxonomy of the genus (in all its nomenclatural gory detail) but also natural history and ethnobotany. The authors have included in these sections a wealth of information, some of it well-supported and some anecdotal from single literature references. Everything you wanted to know, but were afraid to ask, is here – it is marvellous! Brugmansias are extremely important shamanistic plants in South America, dangerous and highly feared and respected. The respect with which indigenous people treat huanduj comes through loud and clear, and the discussion of the plant's effects and uses is wide ranging and thorough. Brugmansias are entheogens – plants that can ‘induce transcendent mystical or spiritual experiences nearly always involving visions’ – rather than narcotics or hallucinogens. This was a new term to me, but I am a convert. Writing about magical plants is always difficult and the authors have very skilfully navigated the territory between fascination and fear.
Horticultural varieties of brugmansias are many and various, and here is where the sumptuousness comes in. This book is magnificently illustrated with hundreds of high quality photographs of the ‘wild’ species and their habitats, but also of cultivated forms. The sheer number of these makes me slightly despair of ever being able to distinguish anything, but the book actually provides the means to manage it in the end. The register of cultivar names will be immensely useful for gardeners and those wanting to put names to these most fascinating and attractive plants. The horticultural half of the book is also practical – in addition to detailed advice on cultivation, grafting and propagation, the authors have included a section on pests and diseases, which will be useful far beyond those interested in growing brugmansias. This information I am sure will be of interest to scientists researching new diseases in agriculture as well.
Huanduj is a book that defies categorisation, it can be read from end to end, or dipped into at leisure, or one can just look at the pictures for fun! It cuts to the heart of people's fascination with plants, which goes far beyond their ‘just’ being the calories we depend upon, but to our symbiotic relationship with them in so many ways. It should be on the bookshelves of anyone interested in plants, whether a botanist, a horticulturalist or just a lover of nature.