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The ‘plant messiah’ on what it takes to save the world’s rarest species

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A fifth of all the world’s plants are in danger of extinction, and Carlos Magdalena is traveling the world to save them. Magdalena, a botanical horticulturist at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, is popularly known as the “plant messiah.” He’s gone to countries like Australia, Peru, and Mauritius to find the world’s endangered species and learn how to cultivate them before they go extinct.

Magdalena’s memoir, aptly titled The Plant Messiah: Adventures in Search of the World’s Rarest Species, will be out from Doubleday on April 10. The Verge spoke to Magdalena about the importance of plant conservation, why he considers himself a “codebreaker,” and what it takes to save the plants.

The interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

How did you first become interested in horticulture?

Photo: Courtesy Doubleday

My mother was a florist, so I was always interested in the plant world. And as I grew up, I realized that plants are really important and they are massively neglected by conservationists in contrast to animals. I realized that if you work with plants, you have many more species and you can maybe contribute a bit more than if you were focusing on animals.

As part of your work, I’m sure you’re always educating people about plants. What surprises people most about them?

Most people don’t realize how clever the plants are! They don’t know about the tricks that plants can do. There are ones that live in the water and look passive, but pull animals toward them to help pollinate them. Plants can detect drought. Just yesterday I received seeds from a type of sacred lotus that were 3,000 years old.

And people don’t realize how endangered plants are. There are so many plants where there are only 10 of them left — when there are only 10 animals left, we know, we’re calling for the funeral. There are 80,000 types of plants that are endangered, and to avoid the extinction of these 80,000, I need to cultivate them. So my work is about finding out the right way — the easiest, reliable way — of getting a plant to grow. Then, once it grows, will it bloom? Will it pollinate? Will it germinate?

In the book, you call yourself a “codebreaker.” Why is that? What are the similarities between what you do and codebreaking?

Well, to make a plant germinate, you need to make things happen in the right order and with a kind of consistency. It’s like baking a cake. Imagine somebody gives you a piece of cake and you don’t know know the ingredients and steps but you have to recreate it. That’s what I mean by “cracking the code.”

When you germinate a seed, you need to start to make decisions immediately. Different plant species will have very different requirements. There are so many protocols that you need to figure out. You can have seeds, and you don’t even know what they are, and you need to deduce that — figure it out from the climate of where they were growing. There are cases where you grow a plant that hasn’t been seen for 60 years. How do you know what it is? Is it a new species?

And you need to try a lot of different things. For example, some seeds from South Africa need to be exposed to chemicals present in smoke to germinate. But some seeds cannot be dry at all because if you dry them you will kill them. Which is which? If one method doesn’t work, what are you going to do next? You always need to be thinking and using logic and figure out what you need to do. Plants can’t speak to you or answer your questions.

Tell me about these protocols. Can you give me some examples? Is there technology you use?

It’s more about trying to test things than relying on advanced technology, and sometimes very small changes with a plant make a big difference. In one case, it was about exposure to air. We tried all these different things for the plant, like working with different pH in the soil, but eventually we realized that it needed a high concentration of carbon dioxide. Sometimes the actions that lead to cultivation are very simple things, but you need to find the one simple thing which fixes the problem out of the one thousand or two thousand possible variables.

Another example is that there is a plant that often develops a spider mite, and no matter how many times you spray it with chemicals, the mites will return and you can’t save it. I see it all the time, and in that case, you have to try different things, like moving it to a cooler temperature.

What other skills are needed for this type of work?

Well, clearly a basic knowledge of ecology and plant growth, but also, you need to be very observant and have a good memory.

Sometimes, if I wait a week to see a plant, I’ll see a massive difference from the last time. But if I leave at 7 o’clock tonight and come back tomorrow morning, there will be less of a difference. So when you are working, you need to remember what this plant was like two weeks ago and have a mental image of it: how it looked then and now, the positioning of leaves, and so on. That way, you can remember and start to see patterns. It’s like how sometimes you look at a person and even when they are not smiling, you can conclude that they are happy or sad. Maybe a few times over a month you may be able to see a pattern. Maybe the plant’s pissed off whenever it’s cold and rainy.

What do we lose when plant species die out?

From the philosophical point of view, plants have a right to exist and some plants have been here for 100 million years. From a more practical standpoint, plants are vital to us and to the ecosystem. You never know which plant you’re going to need, a plant that we don’t have a use for now could be key to the future, and plant that is used a lot today might not be used in a few year’s time. And they have quite a lot of tricks, in ways we can’t even imagine. We don’t yet know the consequences of losing them.


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