Carlos Magdalena is the Plant Messiah

Picture the scene: The Kimberley, northern Australia. Dingos howl in the darkness outside 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 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 plant hunters on TV and they’re all dressed up in cool gear, but the comfiest thing I’ve found to go hunting (for aquatic plants) in is a pair of swimming trunks and flip-flops.”

Botanical horticulturalist Carlos Magdalena is one of the funniest plant people I’ve ever interviewed. He’s certainly the one with the most nicknames: Plant Whisperer, Plant Pimp, Plant Protector and Plant Messiah, and more. To his bemusement, they just keep piling up. 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). There, in the book’s introduction, he declares:

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 often uses to describe his relationship with plants – words that can sometimes wreak havoc on lives —both human and non-human. Yet, during our long conversation, I see in Carlos the best traits a healthy obsession can draw out in a human being: a dogged perseverance in the face of adversity, insatiable curiosity, and vision – the ability to see both the small detail and the big picture and hold them together at the same time in his mind.

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 botanical horticulturalist. He spends most of his time in the Tropical Nursery, looking after the 44,000 plants that grow there.

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 particle physicist Brian Cox in the science section? And how does he end up traveling all over the world on plant rescue & reconnaissance missions, crossing deserts and jungles in jeeps and helicopters, teaching 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 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’. Scientists work under controlled conditions but the realities that gardeners and horticulturalists 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’.”

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, but out in the fields, in the ponds, with mud under their fingers. Incidentally, ponds are something that Carlos is tremendously fond of…

I won’t spoil the tale of how our plant messiah got from northern Spain to the jungle of Kew, but I can say this: it involved a zombie plant that later became his first miracle, the Ramosmania Resurrection. Doomed to evolutionary extinction, everybody had given up on the last clone of café marron or Ramosmania rodriguesii, a relative of coffee that once grew on Rodrigues Island. Whilst the plant was able to be propagated vegetatively, it was unable to produce seed, and therefore unable to survive in the wild. Carlos and the Kew team succeeded in what was thought impossible – coaxing a Ramosmania plant 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.”

Plant hunting at Fitzroy Crossing in the Kimberley, northern Australia.
Nymphoides beaglensis. This plant looks like a waterlily but isn't (it belongs to an entirely different family - the Menyanthaceae).

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 grip his imagination, such as the café marron. His latest fling is with 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, and they should be high on the conservation priority list.

Waterlillies (Nymphaea spp.) are Carlos’s lifelong love affair. They’re a subject he returns to again and again in The Plant Messiah, dedicating an entire chapter to an expedition to collect Australian waterlilies (during which he discovered a “new” species).

I ask him whether he’s returned to Australia (waterlilly heaven) since writing the book. “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.” Well, perhaps not the worst, considering that nobody got eaten by a crocodile, but delayed paperwork, permits and bad luck marred the beginning of the hunting trip. The best? Swimming in a crystal-clear billabong among waterlilies. “An incredible experience that money just can’t buy.”

Carlos tells me about the trip: The ranch in the middle of nowhere, the dingos howling, brolgas singing and dancing at five AM, a helicopter with no doors, 14-hour flights over stretches of wilderness, and a barefoot plant 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!
Nymphaea lukei, a West Australian species only described in 2011.

There’s a plant-like exuberance to Carlos’ storytelling. Anecdotes tumble out of him like a stream, both in conversation and on the page. Although obsessions can sometimes mean tunnel vision, in his case the opposite is true: there’s a widening, an expansion, a reaching out and connecting the dots.

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

Carlos Magdalena is a rare breed of naturalist – having 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 such a nickname. 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.

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.

Population of Nymphaea lukei growing in a remote billabong in the Kimberley
Waterlilies in Dingo Spring, a serendipitous find that evokes a painting Carlos discovered a year previous to the trip, aptly titled “Waterlilies in Dingo Spring”, by the late Aboriginal-Scottish artist Lin Onus