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Plants of the Gods: Their Sacred, Healing, and Hallucinogenic Powers
by Richard Evans Schultes, Albert Hofmann, and Christian Rätsch
Publisher:Healing Arts Press/Inner Traditions
Year:2001 (revised and expanded edition)
Categories:Book Reviews, Recommended Books
Reviewed by Jon Hanna, 6/26/2007
It may be a rare thing for a second edition of a book to warrant its own review, but such is definitely the case with the new edition of the Schultes' and Hofmann's 1979 classic Plants of the Gods. The updated version was produced as a German translation in 1998 by Christian Rätsch, and Healing Arts Press released the English translation of this in late 2001. It is a thing of beauty.
The primary and most dramatic improvement is the inclusion of numerous new photographs and art images. Although this second edition retains many of the same photos, it introduces a lot of new ones as well. In some cases, the item depicted-such as the statue of Shiva with Datura flowers in his hair (p. 11)-has been revisited with a higher-quality photo. Frequently, black and white images have been replaced with a similar image in stunning full-color. While this works superbly in most cases, there are a few situations-such as the replacement color photo of an aerial view of the Kuluene river (p. 24)-where the original black and white photo was much better. New psychedelic art is featured throughout from the likes of Pablo Amaringo, Walangari Karntawarra Jakamarra, Nana Nauwald, and Donna Torres. There are even some incredible watercolor paintings done by Christian Rätsch himself (think Codex Seraphinianus on acid)-where can we see more of his art!? A beautiful mural of an ayahuasca ceremony that graces a wall at the Cuzco Airport in Peru reminds us that some countries have a more enlightened attitude towards the use of psychoptic plants.
"Fourteen Major Hallucinogenic Plants" of the first edition has been altered to become "The Most Important Hallucinogenic Plants," and expanded to include new sections on Anadenanthera colubrina, ayahuasca analogs, Salvia divinorum, and Duboisia hopwoodii. There have been numerous expansions on the old chapters as well, including many additional species of the genera discussed. Six new plants have been added to the "Plant Lexicon," and this section has been vastly improved through the addition of color photographs. Previously, the majority of the plants described were depicted via illustrations, with only a few photo images; this situation is now reversed, with only a few illustrations. (It is a shame that there are any drawings remaining, although I suspect in some cases it might be hard to obtain photographs of the plants in question. Still, in other cases it should not have been difficult-photos of Banisteriopsis caapi, Lagochilus inebrians, Mandragora officinarum, Mimosa tenuiflora [= M. hostilis], Peucedanum japonicum, Scirpus atrovirens, Tabernanthe iboga, and Virola theiodora are all available via the web). The map of "Native Use of Major Hallucinogens" has been expanded to include Hyoscyamus sp., Duboisia sp., and A. colubrina, and the depicted range of Cannabis use has been increased.
Some problems that the original book had are, alas, retained or, in a few cases, exaggerated. The gutter of the book is too tight, causing one to crack the spine to get a full view; this was the case in the earlier edition as well. New layout glitches include shaded backgrounds for text boxes being placed too close to the edge of the text (in some cases touching it), and headlines that sit too close to the images. The problem of citing alkaloid contents as fixed numbers is still present (although in a few cases ranges are presented). Those with little knowledge on the subject might actually believe that all dried Trichocereus pachanoi plants have a 2% mescaline content, while this is actually the peak of the range that can be determined through a survey of the scant few published isolation analyses (which dips down to 0.33%, and even lower in published HPLC analysis), and may not be typical. In new cases when ranges are presented, such as the case with Mimosa tenuiflora root-bark said to contain 0.57 to 1.0% DMT, the information may not be correct. (M. tenuiflora has been reported to contain 0.31 to 0.57% DMT with specific analyses available in the literature of Gonçalves de Lima 1946 and Patcher et al. 1959, and there have been unsubstantiated counter-culture claims of 1% to 11%, see ER Vol. X, No. 3, 2001 and Ott 2001). Both the new and the old editions of this book are riddled with statements about alkaloid contents that are presented as if they were fixed amounts, when in reality alkaloid content can be highly variable.
Some new errors are introduced with this edition. Spelling mistakes are peppered throughout (they've misspelled author Hofmann's name on the back cover!), and awkward phrasings are not uncommon in those sections that were translated from German. In some cases, plants are presented as containing specific alkaloids that they do not have. For example, it is remarked that "The Turkey Red variety of the grass Phalaris arundinacea contains liberal amounts of DMT." This is in error, as this variety contains liberal amounts of 5-MeO-DMT, not DMT. Also, photographs of four cacti-Ariocarpus retusus, A. fissuratus, Astrophyton asterias, and Aztekium riterii-known in México as "peyote" are depicted, with the statement "They primarily contain the substance mescaline and other psychoactive alkaloids." This too is in error, as only A. riterii has been found to contain trace amounts of mescaline, and no mescaline has been found at all in the others. (It was interesting to see that Rätsch considers a heftier amount of mescaline, "0.5-0.8 gram" to be a dose, compared to the Shulgins' more conservative 200-400 mg dose listed in PIHKAL; I tend to agree with Rätsch.)
Any and all criticism of this book should be viewed as minor, as it is truly a marvelous work. Rätsch has taken a great book and made it better. Especially if you own the first edition, you owe it to yourself to pick up this revamp. It is visual delight, a joy to read cover-to-cover, and it will no doubt be revisited repeatedly for years to come.