How to become a Plant Messiah, Part 1

Must have: a passion for nature, and a healthy sense of humour

Picture the scene: the Kimberley, Australia. Dingos howl in the darkness outside the ranch as the plant hunter walks bleary-eyed into the common room before the crack of dawn. Breakfast is being served around two long tables: one for a gaggle of prattling women, the other for a herd of taciturn men. The plant hunter heads towards the silent table — only he doesn’t quite look the part… “You see them on tv and they’re all dressed up with all this cool gear, but the comfiest thing I found [to go hunting for aquatic plants] is a pair of swimming trunks and flip-flops — and then I went and lost one of the flip-flops, so…”

Botanical horticulturalist Carlos Magdalena (Gijón, 1972) is probably one of the funniest plant people I’ve ever had the pleasure to interview. He is certainly the one with the most nicknames: plant whisperer, plant pimp, 1/3 Noah 1/3 Indiana Jones 1/3 MacGyver, plant protector, plant messiah… to his bemusement, they just seem to keep piling up, and things have gotten worse since he published his first book, titled The Plant Messiah: Adventures in Search of the World’s Rarest Species (Penguin, 2017).

Book + jujube (Ziziphus jujuba)

There, on the Introduction’s first page, he declares that

“My mission is to make you aware of exactly how important plants are; in fact, I am obsessed with this idea.”

Carlos Magdalena. How many people do you know who can wear a waterlily pad-hat with such style?

Obsession and fever are words he’s often used to describe his relationship with plants, words that can sometimes wreak havoc on the lives of people — both human and non-human — , yet during our long and deliciously meandering conversation I see in Carlos the best traits that a healthy obsession can bring out in a human being: a dogged perseverance in the face of adversity, and that special kind of curiosity that all great naturalists have had, the skill to see both the small detail and the big picture, and hold them together at the same time in his mind.

And the willingness to ask questions, keep asking questions.

“With plants, obsession and passion are the key, otherwise you don’t get anywhere. (…) You have to become obsessed in order to progress.”

In his case, progress often means helping the survival of a species on the border of extinction: Carlos is in the miracle business, and he’s been succeeding at it for the last 15 years, since he began working at Kew Gardens — first as an intern, then as a trained botanical horticulturalist that spends most of his hours in the Tropical Nursery, looking after the 44,000 plants that grow there.

(Cannot wrap your head around that number? I couldn’t either, so I did the math: if you were to spend one minute perusing each plant, it would take you a whole month to see them all — devoting every single minute of every single hour of every single day. That’s what 44,000 minutes (plants) actually mean.)

So how does somebody like Carlos end up on the Evening Standard list of the 1000 most influential Londoners for the past three years or so, hobnobbing with the likes of Stephen Hawkins in the Science section at one point?

And how does he end up travelling all over the world on plant rescue & reconnaissance missions, crossing deserts and jungles in jeeps and helicopters, teaching native communities how to grow plants for their futures — even while jet-lagged and sleep-deprived?

A helpful piece of advice from Carlos: “Unless you’re hunting water plants and you have a helicopter, please abstain from plant-hunting in flip-flops.”

The story-answer begins in a green and gorgeous region of northern Spain: Asturias, where Carlos was born to a family that lived close to the land. I thoroughly enjoyed reading about his early years in the book, how he learnt to graft fruit trees and wield chainsaws before he was ten: a get-dirty, hands-on approach to nature that’s both deeply loving, and devoid of sappy romanticism.

He is no lab boy, that’s for sure. “Sometimes we have meetings at Kew, and people from the science department will introduce themselves and say they do science, and then I introduce myself and say ‘I do witchcraft’,” and I laugh because I totally get his point. “They do this analytic science under controlled conditions, and don’t get me wrong, that’s super necessary,”, but the realities that gardeners, horticulturalists or even field botanists have to deal with are anything but controlled.

“You can study all these things in a lab, and then it’s suddenly like, ‘explain the jungle to me’.”

Indeed. And I recall Stefano Mancuso once writing that, if he had to think about somebody who really knows plants, he wouldn’t look for them in a lab full of white coats and microscopes, but out in the fields, in the ponds, with mud under their fingers. Incidentally, ponds are something that Carlos is tremendously fond of, but let’s get back to the book.

I won’t spoil the tale of how our plant messiah got from Asturias to the jungle of Kew, but I can say this: it involved a zombie plant that later became his first miracle, the Ramosmania Resurrection.

Here are the lovely blooms of the café marrón, from the coffee family (Rubiaceae)

Despite blooming profusely in Kew, the last extant clone of Ramosmania rodriguesii (aka café marrón, a rare plant endemic to Rodrigues Island) would refuse to set seed, dooming the entire species to evolutionary extinction. Everyone had given up on the café marrón — everyone, that is, but Carlos Magdalena, who’s got this annoying habit of questioning things, trying them for himself, and often succeeding at feats that were believed impossible… such as coaxing Ramosmania to set seed.

With Ramosmania back from the dead, the book picks up speed, and we’re thrown into the whirlwind of Carlos’ voracious curiosity. “See, this plant’s [Ramosmania’s] story has me so utterly fascinated that I end up here [at Kew], and when I get here I stumble across a gazillion other plants with stories I knew nothing about but that now also fascinate me. When somebody asks me to tell them about them — well, I do.”

That he does, in a wide-ranging and entertaining account of his plant hunting travels in Bolivia, Peru, the Amazon, and Australia. As it happens, botanical horticulturalists lead impressively adventurous lives — or, at least, those working at Kew!

Plant hunting at Gibb River Road in the Kimberley, northern Australia.

For Carlos, it would seem that obsessions are not mutually exclusive: he has a lifelong love affair with a particular genus of plants, and more-or-less temporary flings with plants that have gripped his imagination for one reason or another, such as the café marrón. When I asked about his latest obsession, he mentioned a family that few of us are familiar with: the river weeds (Podostemaceae), plants that usually grow in the crystal-clear running waters of streams and rivers. Their habitats are disappearing at an alarming speed, so they should be high on the conservation priority list.

However, anybody who’s read The Plant Messiah knows that if there’s a subject that Carlos returns to again and again, it’s waterlilies… and if there is such a thing as waterlily heaven, it’s in Australia.

These were in Marlgu Billabong, the Kimberly.

(To be continued…)

Nearly all pictures courtesy of Carlos Magdalena. Check out his Twitter / Instagram / Facebook accounts for fascinating information and gorgeous pictures of plants (& places!). Many thanks to Carlos for his generosity and his help correcting minor issues in the story.

More of Aina’s writing is available to read on her website and blog.

First of a two-part series based on a story originally published at theplanthunter.com.au on August 7, 2018.

Writer, Author + Biologist. Story maker. Curious about plants, the human experience & everything else.

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