How to become a Plant Messiah, Part 2

Waterlilies, helicopters and lessons about hope & curiosity in the age of biological chaos

Imagine a spring of water. A pond bathed in crepuscular light, its surface fractured by the dark, inverted reflections of eucalyptus trees. Brown leaves have sunk into the water, turning into shoals of decay before they sink out of sight. And, everywhere you look, like bright green jewels, there are waterlily pads resting on the waters.

Evenly spaced — a rare occurrence in nature, where they tend to clump and cover as much surface available as possible — , with just a few rosy flowers here and there.

I’ve double-checked the title of the canvas that Carlos send me; it might be “Water Lillies and Evening Reflections, Dingo Springs” instead. The pink hue of the flowers might’ve been an artistic tweak…

The canvas, painted by the late Aboriginal-Scottish artist Lin Onus, is called Waterlilies in Dingo Spring, and “I had this moment of Australo-tropical Impressionism when I saw it,” jokes the naturalist Carlos Magdalena; curious about the painting, he checked on Google Maps, saw there were quite a few Dingo Springs scattered all over Australia… and then he kinda forgot about it for a whole year. Unbeknownst to him, serendipity would make this painting come to life for Carlos during an expedition that, up until that moment, had been rather disastrous…

If you haven’t read about him yet, Magdalena is Kew Garden’s most famous botanical horticulturalist, and the author of The Plant Messiah: Adventures in Search of the World’s Rarest Species (2017).

Last month I had the wonderful opportunity to chat with Carlos about his adventures and plant obsessions; among these takes place of pride the genus Nymphaea, commonly known as waterlilies… and Australia is The Place to go when it comes to waterlily diversity. Thus it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Carlos devotes an entire chapter of his book to an expedition to collect Aussie waterlilies — during which, by the way, he discovered a “new” species — , so I asked him whether he’d repeated his visit.

“Since I finished the book I’ve been back once, and it was an example of both the best and the worst that can happen in an expedition.”

The modern plant hunter rides jeeps, motocycles (eg in Peru)… and sometimes even helicopters.

Well, perhaps not the worst, considering that nobody got eaten by a crocodile (a very real danger if you’re into collecting waterlilies), but bad enough. Delayed paperwork, permits, visas, accidents and just plain bad luck during the first two weeks of the trip; 3500 km and nothing to show for them…

Then, a drastic reversal of fortune, heralded by a serendipitous find in the unlikeliest of places: a petrol station-cum-convenience store-cum-bar&toilet in the middle of nowhere.

“So we ask the lady behind the counter, any waterlilies around here?” — typical Magdalena question, by the way — “and she gave us directions to get to a place called Dingo Spring, four or five creeks down the road.”

As they drove past the fourth creek in search for Waterlilies in Dingo Spring, although a year had passed since he’d stumbled across Lin Onus’ canvas, a lightbulb went off in his head… and when they reached the place, bingo.

Or, rather, dingo.

“The pond with the eucalyptus, the waterlily pads — had they been in full sun it would’ve been total waterlily blackout, but here they are in half-shade and so they grow more slowly, putting out a leaf here and there… exactly like in the painting.”

Waterlilies in Dingo Spring, a serendiOnus)

And then, he explains, came the Grand Finale to the expedition, an incredible experience that money just can’t buy.

And I believe him, as I listen to him talking about the ranch in the middle of nowhere, the dingos howling (plus Carlos’ hilarious rendition of a brolga’s singing-dancing at 5 AM), a helicopter with no doors, 14-hour flights over stretches of wilderness, a barefoot messiah losing his flip-flop in a muddy lake — and waterlilies.

Always, waterlilies.

“Suddenly we see a billabong with crystalline waters, and a bunch of waterlilies smack in the center. There are no crocodiles, so I go for a swim. Imagine underwater prairies of Vallisneria, rainbow fish and sunlight flooding through the water’s surface. Then, when I got to the waterlilies, I see they’re growing at a depth of five metres!”

Collecting and pressing a strange and unique waterlily with black sepals. Seemingly close to Nymphaea violacea, but possibly a sterile hybrid of N. violacea & a local form of N. macrosperma. It was found in an inaccessible billabong, thanks to the helicopter!

There’s a plant-like exuberance to Carlos’ storytelling — at 100x the speed of plant growth, though: anecdotes tumble out of him like a stream, both in real life and on the page. And although obsessions can sometimes give you tunnel vision, in his case the opposite is true: there’s a widening, an expansion, a reaching out and connecting the dots that he hoards in his prodigious photographic memory.

“Plants are quite misunderstood, even by people who study them like I do,” and whereas the yawning gaps in our knowledge might throw others into despair, Carlos is more than willing to dive into the unknown.

“Take waterlilies, for example,” and I listen enraptured as he launches into an explanation of why waterlilies have certain colours in certain places. “The only pink form of Nymphaea alba is in Sweden, then there’s a pink N. tetragona in Finland but that’s it, the rest are all white [in Europe]. When you go to the tropics though, many waterlilies are white, but mostly they’re blue, and then some pink forms here and there… but why? Then there’s the mystery of yellow. There’s one yellow waterlily in Mexico, and two species in Africa, I haven’t gotten there yet…”

The picture is infinitely complex, constantly moving, always evolving.

And sometimes you get priceless opportunities like during his latest Aussie expedition, where a helicopter ride gives you a birdlike view of everything.

Adansonia gregorii, endemic baobab and iconic tree of Western Australia, as seen from a shadowy helicopter.

Swamps on flat-topped rocky outcrops, ancient baobabs, Aboriginal signs across the land; a living map of billabongs, streams, pools and ponds, both ephemeral and long-lasting, where you can see how waterlilies are scattered across the surface, who’s in the neighbourhood and who’s too far away for any kind of sexual interactions via pollinators… But then again, “in Australia the native pollinators were stingless bees that live in small colonies, and being stingless you could have them in your garden — indeed Aboriginal peoples use them very cleverly… Well these bees are smaller than our regular honeybees, so their foraging radius is also smaller.

“Now foreign bees have been introduced [over 180 years ago], bigger ones, with wider flight radiuses… this means that a different set of hybrid waterlilies can crop up now that couldn’t have appeared before. (…) Then there’s people growing exotic waterlilies in southern Australia — Nymphaea odorata, N. capensis, N. mexicana… — and more biological chaos ensues.”

From the micro to the macro, from waterlily stamens to the migratory and flight patterns of wild geese. Everything is connected, intrinsically dynamic.

And Carlos is that rare breed of naturalist that has both the skilled passion to obsess over the growth requirements of a tiny Rwandan waterlily in Kew’s emergency ward, as well as the ecological wisdom to know that, when it comes to conservation, protecting a single species is mostly pointless: you must protect the whole system.

“With the possible exception of a few tropical or boreal areas, there’s precious little of planet Earth that hasn’t been touched by human hands. (…) Whether we like it or not, we are part of the ecosystem, and we must eat.” In essence, this means beginning to see ourselves as responsible gardeners. As Carlos put it in the last page of his book:

Let’s turn things around and garden our way out of this apocalypse, green up the world and plant our future.”

Despite the fact that he’s never introduced himself as a messiah, an impending biodiversity apocalypse is a pretty good reason to come to terms with (and make the most of) such a nickname. And Carlos is doing exactly that: telling the stories of voiceless plants with generosity and a hard-nosed optimism — not denying the problems, but stubbornly looking out for the good, too.

Because, as the Monty Python sang in the last scene of the film Life of Brian, we can “always look on the bright side of life”.

All the photosynthetic beings of the world are on the bright side, too.

Nymphaea violacea growing in a place called Blue Bush — possibly because of how thousands of blueish waterlilies grow amidst the flooded bush (an utterly amazing place that, according to Carlos, looks much more impressive in person than on a picture. I, for one, believe him).

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.

Second 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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