“You are undone if you once forget that the fruits of the earth belong to us all, and the earth itself to nobody.” – Jean-Jacques Rousseau
It is no wonder that Carlos Magdalena, who works as a senior tropical botanical horticulturist at the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew, describes himself as an admirer of Rousseau’s political philosophy. His new book, The Plant Messiah, vividly narrates his adventures across the globe, conveying a refreshing yet profound vision of nature. The first pages make that vision clear: without plants, “our greatest yet most humble servants,” we “would not survive.” And because plants are unable to “warn of the folly of their destruction,” someone needs to speak for them. Carlos Magdalena is their voice.
The book describes his mission: finding plants on the verge of extinction, collecting them (which often entails traveling to exotic places), propagating them (with more or less success), and, along the way, understanding each plant’s ecosystem and how it interacts with the local fauna. He travels with one mantra: “With plants, obsession and passion are the key, otherwise you don’t get anywhere.” He also packs a healthy dose of optimism: “Nature can be destroyed but can also be created and transformed.”
Magdalena reminds us that “one in five plants is now believed to be threatened with extinction,” which underlines the urgency of his actions. We follow him as he travels to the most idyllic and far-flung places—from Mauritius and Rodrigues Islands in the Indian Ocean to the Amazon rainforest, Australia, and coastal Peru. There, he may collect one specimen of an endangered species and bring it back to the Kew Botanic Gardens in the UK—a step in the process that can be much more complicated than it looks—to then assiduously work on its growth, propagation and protection.
In 2010, a journalist started referring to Magdalena as “the Plant Messiah”—a nickname many might have found intimidating. Always pragmatic, Magdalena went to his dictionary and decided that embodying the status of “deliverer” and “messenger” would be a powerful ultimate goal to pursue.
Magdalena grew up in northern Spain, in the region of Asturias, which he describes as “the perfect place to learn about nature as a child.” His passion and tireless curiosity for plants and flowers emerged early. He recalls a happy, colorful childhood spent gardening, birdwatching, daydreaming in the classroom, and developing a unique love for – and addiction to waterlilies—a “complex and endlessly fascinating” plant that makes recurrent appearances in his narrative.
While you sometimes wish Magdalena had included pictures of the plants he is trying to save, the evocative power of his descriptions may feed your imagination better than any photograph. Words often make these descriptions poetic, like Cryptopus elatus—an orchid found on Mauritius, whose pure white flower “looks like one of those intricate paper snowflakes that children cut out with scissors at school.” Mysterious, like South America’s Nymphaea, the enigmatic waterlily that only blooms at night. Magnetic, like Victoria amazonica, the heavily scented waterlily whose charm inspired a fable among the Amazonian peoples. Naia, a young and dreamy Amazon woman, wanted to touch the moon and mistakenly chased its reflection into the Amazon River; she drowned, but the moon, feeling compassion, changed her into a sumptuous waterlily, Victoria amazonica.
The book abounds with vivid anecdotes and colorful episodes. Not only do they make the narrative entertaining; they aptly describe a critical part of the scientific process, where happenstance can be more powerful than traditional methods. Magdalena was “at home cooking tortellini,” watching the water bubbling in the saucepan, when he realized in a flash that CO2 was the missing piece that would later save Nymphaea thermarum, a small waterlily extinct in the wild and nearly extinct on Earth. Another time, the random recovery of an old botanical magazine from the trash turned out to be the first step towards the saving of Lobelia vagans, a small flowering plant.
By pointing out how the most futile events of daily life have the potential to provoke decisive insights and trigger the rescue of species on the verge of extinction, Magdalena makes science accessible and unpretentious. You follow his train of thought as he is experimenting, often with notable ingenuity; he fails, tries again, goes off the beaten track, and occasionally faces others’ skepticism—which never alters his belief. “If you continue with traditional techniques,” he writes, “you will never push boundaries or make new discoveries.”
While saving endangered species is a complex matter, understanding the cause of their disappearance is no less complex. The book offers a few insights. Seemingly insignificant actions can cause irreversible damage: clearing the vegetation to improve a lake view on Mauritius, or felling Huarango trees to cook Peru’s most famous chicken dish, have had disastrous botanical consequences. The disappearance of the fauna responsible for the plant’s pollination is also a critical threat. But help can pop up in unexpected ways: in 2014, the theft of one Nymphaea thermarum at Kew generated intense press coverage, which raised the public consciousness about waterlilies.
Even a messiah can face skepticism. Some ask: why save plants? Is it, after all, only because of their aesthetics? Magdalena deftly directs our attention towards a bigger picture: the preservation of plants is crucial for research. Take Nymphaea thermarum again: its uniquely small genome is now used as a new genetic model, which makes new experimentation—and potential scientific discoveries—possible. “Each plant species that dies out contains words that have been written only in that book,” he continues. Lose one book, and you lose all the messages it carries.
Magdalena puts a spotlight on the (often unknown) missions of botanical gardens, in particular their involvement in the restoration of critically endangered areas such as coastal Peru or the Pando area in Bolivia. One crucial step requires the empowerment and training of the local population—another mission for our Plant Messiah. And as he narrates his adventures in the Amazonian forest and up in the Andes mountains, he makes you reflect on the importance of educating, training, and supporting local communities, in order to foster new habits, and change attitudes over the long term.
As you close the book, you may be left with the impression that you have just landed back from a long journey to exotic countries. You have learned about plants, ecosystems, conservation and nurseries. But more important, and despite the seriousness of Magdalena’s take-home message, you likely feel optimistic: the author’s enthusiasm is contagious.
The fate of critically endangered species is no light matter: “what we exhale, they inhale; what we inhale, they exhale.” With accessibility and determination, The Plant Messiah narrates a noble undertaking while spreading a vital message. “You only need to have a spark of interest,” Magdalena writes. “That interest leads to knowledge, that knowledge leads to care, and that care leads to action.” His message is unmistakable: “Anyone can be a plant messiah.”
Marie Crouzevialle is a postdoctoral researcher at New York University, studying Social Psychology and motivational processes.