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Bringing back extinct plants to life: Q&A with ‘plant messiah’ Carlos Magdalena

Carlos Magdalena. Image courtesy of Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

  • Carlos Magdalena, a botanical horticulturalist at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, U.K., who’s been labeled the “plant messiah” by the media, has figured out how to get some of the world’s rarest plant species to grow.
  • Magdalena travels around the world collecting seeds and cuttings of extremely rare plant species, then brings them back to the Royal Botanic Gardens, where, together with his colleagues, he sets about trying to propagate them.
  • But the clock is ticking, he tells Mongabay. Tropical forests with high biodiversity are being razed around the world and plants are going extinct by the hour.
  • Mongabay chatted with Magdalena over the phone about what it takes to save rare plants and what drives him.

Carlos Magdalena lives and breathes plants. He’s obsessed with them. But he also understands why many people aren’t.

“Plants are not as obvious as animals,” he tells Mongabay. “You see an animal and it’s very easy for you to feel empathy for the animal because you’re an animal too. But you cannot see a plant truly until you know it well, until you know the facts surrounding it, what pollinates it, what magic tricks it can do.”

Magdalena, a botanical horticulturalist at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, U.K., has figured out many of these tricks. He’s especially drawn to plants that are extremely endangered and down to their last or just a handful of individuals in the wild. He travels around the world collecting seeds and cuttings of such extremely rare plant species, then brings them back to the Royal Botanic Gardens, where, together with his colleagues, he sets about trying to unravel the plants’ mysteries. Take Nymphaea thermarum, the world’s smallest known water lily, for example. After the species went extinct in its only habitat in Rwanda in 2008, Magdalena managed to crack the code and germinate the plant’s seeds at Kew after several failed attempts.

As in the case of the lily, sometimes making a rare species grow is a struggle that can span decades. Other times it’s surprisingly easy. So there’s hope, Magdalena says, that some of the plants that we are losing could be very easily propagated and saved.

For his efforts to give life to near-extinct and extinct plant species, Magdalena, born in Gijón, Asturias, in northern Spain, was labeled “El Mesias de las Plantas” (The Messiah of Plants) in a Spanish newspaper in 2010. That label has stuck.

“I suspect the name was partly inspired by my post-biblical (though pre-hipster) beard and long hair, and also because I was spending a lot of my time trying to save plants on the brink of extinction,” he writes in his book, The Plant Messiah: Adventures in Search of the World’s Rarest Species.

He doesn’t have a messiah complex, he quickly adds in the book. What he does want to be, though, is a messenger who makes people aware of how important plants are, and how critical they are for our survival.

But the clock is ticking, he tells Mongabay. Tropical forests with high biodiversity are being razed around the world and plants are going extinct every hour. In fact, one in five plant species in the world is estimated to be threatened with extinction.

“None of us has the authority or the right to destroy the forests at this scale,” he says. “Who owns the oxygen we breathe? Nobody does, and it is only produced in a few places like the oceans and rainforests of our precious planet.”

Mongabay chatted with Magdalena over the phone about what it takes to save rare plants and what drives him.

Carlos Magdalena. Image courtesy of Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

Mongabay: How did you get interested in plants and what excites you about them the most?

Carlos Magdalena: I was always interested in wildlife and nature. From a very early age I was helping my mother who had some flower shops and liked to grow lots of different things — some because they were beautiful, others because they were strange. But as I got older, I started liking plants more and more because I think plants are not as obvious as animals. You see an animal and it’s very easy for you to feel empathy for the animal because you’re an animal too. But you need to know plants. You cannot see a plant truly until you know it well, until you know the facts surrounding it, what pollinates it, what magic tricks it can do.

Plants do things on a different scale of time. Even if you see a plant doing nothing, it is doing something very deep and at many levels: at the soil level, at the root level, at the stem level, at the flower level. I will say that many of us don’t love plants because we don’t know them.

What kind of work do you do at Kew?

I work with Kew’s living collections of plants, more precisely in the glasshouse department where we cultivate tropical plants like tropical trees, shrubs, climbers and aquatics like water lilies. We also work with a huge variety of species from tropical crops to plants that have interesting biology or an economic value, plants that are simply beautiful and fascinating. We work with many different countries. We have many examples of flora from islands because islands are fragile ecosystems and they have their own sets of plants that are very unique. For example, I work with lots of species from the Mascarene archipelago in the Indian Ocean. We also have plants from other islands such as Hawaii and the Canary Islands.

The work sits on different levels, both saving individual species but also understanding the genes of different species because taxonomy is key to protect species. You can only protect what you know exists. If you don’t understand that, you don’t know whether it’s endangered or not.

At Kew there are more than 27,000 plant species, and more than 68,000 accessions [different plant materials collected from the same species, or the same species collected from different places] and the nursery where I work has 8,000 to 9,000 species. It’s currently estimated that there are about 400,000 plant species in the world, and one in five species is threatened with extinction. That means that over 70,000 species are threatened with extinction. There are more plant species threatened with extinction than all threatened bird and mammal species put together. It’s a huge problem.

Could you give an example of a rare plant species that you’re working on now?

We are trying to work with a plant in the family Podostemaceae, which is a group of plants that grows in fast-moving rivers. Trying to figure out the conditions in which it grows has been very difficult.

How do you decide which plant species is worth saving, since there are so many of them?

I try to work with whatever I can. A plant species may be endangered but if you don’t have any links with the country where it grows, and you don’t have any funding, then it’s difficult to work on that species. Sometimes I try to chase planet alignment, where I know that there is a case, and I know that somebody is willing to help and where I can justify the use of resources for them. Of course the more endangered a plant is, the more desperate the situation is and the more interested I become. For example, for animals, if I tell you that there are 300 specimens left, people will be like “Oh my god, this is terrible.” In Mauritius, plants species that have 300 specimens will be considered of least concern.

There are 70 species of plants that we know of that have less than 10 individuals left. In some cases, there is just the last individual plant left, or there are the last three individuals left, those will probably be more of a priority because the clock is ticking, and these specimens might have only few minutes left. These last individuals could disappear by the end of this week. Maybe the individuals could disappear with the next cyclone, or when the next pest gets introduced.

Nymphaea thermarum, the world’s smallest known water lily, went extinct in the wild in 2008. Image courtesy of Carlos Magdalena/Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

Once you zero in on a species, how do you go about looking for them in the wild?

It’s important to have someone help you at the other end. If I go to Mauritius by myself, it will take me forever to find the plant I want. But if you work with people who are on the island and know where the plants are, in one day I can take cuttings from maybe 30 to 40 species. Rather than reinvent the wheel you need to work with whatever help you can get. Local knowledge is key.

Also, we all have specialties and I step in only when people are having difficulty. For example, if there is a plant species that’s threatened and if people within the country are already growing it from seeds, it’s not relevant for me to help. But if they have tried to grow it and don’t know what to do next, that is when I usually try to step in, when there’s some kind of difficulty.

How hard is it to navigate permits and bureaucracy in order to take seeds or cuttings back to Kew?

It depends. Kew works in partnerships in over 100 countries worldwide. Seeds, for example, can be relatively easy to bring in provided we comply with global conventions and protocols. We seek approvals from the countries of origin, and a copy of all seeds we collect for the Millennium Seed Bank are stored in their country of origin too so we don’t do anything against the will of any government and always make sure everyone is benefiting equally.

When you bring materials like cuttings, or living plants, then you need more permits and documentation as well as a period of quarantine. Even at Kew, to save our collection, anything we bring from abroad, we put in quarantine.

Once you’ve brought the seeds or cuttings, what’s your process in trying to figure out how to grow them?

Sometimes it can be very tricky to grow these rare plants. But amazingly, sometimes it can be very easy too. So there is hope.

Sometimes there is a single tree in the world, and maybe it’s not growing in the country, and I bring a cutting, and then it roots using normal techniques that you use for any plant without much drama. So in a way, some of the plants that we are losing could be very easily propagated and saved.

Sometimes, though, it gets more complicated. The more endangered a plant is the more specialized it is. When they are very specialized to a particular type of soil, particular type of climate, that is when there is a challenge. Then you spend a lot of time thinking about what you could do.

It’s like working in a hospital. A patient might come in, but you don’t know what happened to that person, you don’t know much about the history of that person. All you know is that he is sick, and he can’t speak to you. How do you go about it? You try to react to what you’re seeing. For example, if the person has low blood pressure, then you try to raise the pressure. If he has signs of infection, you may try some general antibiotics. If that doesn’t work, you think about what you can do next. With plants, you need to think similarly, often think out of the box, and use your sixth sense, if you like.  It can become very personalized for every plant.

If your memory is good, you can look at a plant and realize that yesterday the plant was a little greener or was facing up. And that enables you to react quicker than if you don’t notice anything.

Sometimes things can also work differently in cultivation. You could try to replicate the conditions in which a plant species grows in the wild, and sometimes that doesn’t work. That’s because in cultivation they may like something different. For example, a plant that lives in running water, you may think it would like to sit in water. But actually, it’s different. In the wild, the water is flowing, the water has higher oxygen. In cultivation, it may do better out of the water. Then sometimes you think that because you collected your specimen from a place that was very, very hot, that’s what your plant likes. But maybe it was hot at midday and at night the temperature drops, so in cultivation it grows in a cooler temperature than you think it’s going to be.

Hyophorbe amaricaulis is only known from a single, so far impossible to reproduce specimen, in Curepipe, Mauritius. Image courtesy of Carlos Magdalena/Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

You mentioned that some species are surprisingly easy to grow. Could you give an example?

There is a plant in Mauritius called Elaeocarpus bojeri. There were only two trees left, and they told me that they tried to propagate it but it didn’t grow. I took some cuttings and seeds. The seeds didn’t germinate straight away, but I did something called nicking, which is cutting a bit of the outer hard shell of the seed, which it allows some water to go in, and all the seeds germinated.

In 2014, a rare water lily was stolen from Kew. You have so many rare species there. Is theft a big concern?

It depends on how you look at it. While it happens and while we take it seriously, it doesn’t happen that often. We all try to balance the line between protecting our collections and also allowing people to see plants up close. We don’t want to keep the plants out of public eye all the time or put them in glass boxes or put CCTV cameras in every single corner. So it is a concern, but 99 percent of the people are really well behaved.

What do you think of the current rate of forest loss across the tropics and the rate at which plants are going extinct?

Plants are going extinct every single day, probably every single hour. It’s like killing all your golden-egg hens systematically. It is so nonsensical. We really need to realize that protecting the forests is not optional. This is not something that’s just idealistic. This is at the very core of our survival.

We cannot stabilize the planet’s climate if there is no tropical forest. We cannot ensure that we will have resources to support humankind in terms of medicines, food, water and more without protecting these forests. Sometimes we destroy tropical forests for unnecessary reasons like palm oil production in parts of tropical Asia, for example.

Being Spanish, I cannot think of any single traditional food recipe that has been used for last maybe 30 years that has used palm oil as an ingredient. Then why do we have palm oil in nearly every single piece of food we eat now? Many farmers rely on this production for their livelihoods and at the end of the day people need feeding too, so it’s important to find more sustainable uses for the land that still support local communities.

We’re also destroying tropical forests of very high diversity to produce very low quality meat. You need to think on a deeper timescale. What annoys me the most about tropical forest destruction is how unnecessary much of it has been. We also need to learn from the mistakes of past generations so that we don’t replicate those mistakes.

None of us has the authority or the right to destroy the forests at this scale. Who owns the oxygen we breathe? Nobody does, and it is only produced in a few places like the oceans and rainforests of our precious planet.

Is there anything else that you would like to add?

I want to finally repeat that many of us don’t like plants only because we don’t know them well. One of the things I find most fascinating about plants is that the more I know about them, the less I know about them. I never get bored observing a plant. Everyday there’s something new that I learn. And every day I find yet another plant that’s even more interesting than the previous one.

All you have to do is just keep watching them, understand them. That’s a very healthy thing to do.

Banner image of Carlos Magdalena courtesy of Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.