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Meet: Dr Alistair Hay, brugmansia expert

Photo - Robin Powell

The huge scented flowers of the brugmansia are show-stoppers. For Dr Alistair Hay, formerly a senior research scientist and director of public programs at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Sydney, they have also been life-changers. He tells Robin Powell how it happened.


Why the fascination with brugmansia?

I’d known them in gardens for a long time and after I retired I started collecting them and got the bug. They are such outrageous plants in the garden! Then I became very interested in their natural history and how they were used by South American indigenous cultures.


Brugmansia have a reputation as dangerous plants.

They do need to be treated with respect as they are poisonous and hallucinogenic. One of the reasons they are so dangerous is that when you are under the influence of the plant, you don’t realise you are, it all seems real. Indigenous people who use them in ritual and in therapy always have someone who is not under the influence to look after someone who is. When I spoke to people who had experience with them as hallucinogenics they told me it was horrendous and that they’d never do it again.

'Aztec Gold' growing through bougainvillea in Alistair's garden. Photo - Alistair Hay

Your book, ‘Huanduj:Brugmansia’ tells all about the trance-inducing use of the plants by South American indigenous cultures, and it also celebrates how amazing the plants look in gardens, especially in your own garden at Meroo Meadow in NSW. How many varieties are you growing?

I have about 50-60 named varieties, and lots more seedlings in trial. Brugmansia are easy to work with in that way as you can get them to flower in a year. I grow hundreds and throw out nearly all of them to get a one per cent success rate of really good new cultivars.


Is there one particular variety that you would recommend to gardeners as a no-fail, must-have plant?

Brugmansia sanguinea, which usually has red and yellow tubular flowers is particularly difficult and prone to disease but generally speaking the others are very easy to grow. They do tend to go dormant in excessive heat and in the dead of winter and then make up for it with enormous numbers of flowers in bursts through spring and autumn.


'Avalanche' making a show in Alistair's garden. Photo - Alistair Hay.

What care is required?

They have to be fed an enormous amount. I give them a mixture of 50 per cent garden compost, 25 per cent turkey manure, and 25 per cent cow manure, applied twice a year – lavishly! Some of the old survivor cultivars –like the old apricot and the double white do survive on neglect and flower well with nothing, but they respond very well if you feed them.


Given how gorgeous they are, and how easy they are to grow, why are brugmansias so hard to find in nurseries?

Mainly because they are difficult to present well in the nursery situation. They flower in bursts and don’t like being in small pots except for short periods. They are relatively easy to obtain online though.


Is there still more to learn, or is seven years on brugmansias long enough?

I’ve become fascinated by South American ethno-botany. We’ve bought a property in southern Columbia and are developing a 30-acre botanic garden to disseminate indigenous knowledge about plants. We’re thinking about embarking on a project to describe a shaman’s garden in Columbia. The shamans learn about the medicinal properties of plants while being under the influence of psychotropic plants, which is very different to the way we acquire knowledge. You get involved in something because a plant looks outrageous and then it changes your life!


‘Huanduj: Brugmansia’ by Alistair Hay, Monika Gottschalk and Adolfo Holguin is published by Florilegium and Kew Royal Botanic Gardens.

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Author: Robin Powell