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The Plant Messiah by Carlos Magdalena

If you’re looking to explain to someone how botany can be exciting, then The Plant Messiah by Carlos Magdalena is an excellent place to start.

This isn’t so much a book about botany as about being a botanist. Obviously, there’s going to be some botany along the way, but this is an autobiographical account by Carlos Magdalena of what he does and why he does it. As a result, it’s a very personal account of work and that means he’s at the centre of the book. Combined with the title, this book could easily be seen as an ego trip, so let’s start with the title. Actually, this is where Magdalena starts himself in the Introduction A Messiah’s Manifesto.

Let me introduce myself. My name is Carlos Magdalena, and I am passionate about plants.

In 2010 I was labelled ‘El Mesías de las Plantas’ by Pablo Tuñón, a journalist who wrote about my work in the Spanish newspaper La Nueva España. 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.

This alias reached a worldwide audience when Sir David Attenborough mentioned it while interviewing me for Kingdom of Plants , a series filmed at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. The Plant Messiah quickly became my media moniker, offering ample opportunity for mockery among friends and colleagues alike. My family love the idea of my mum coming on to the balcony to shout, ‘He’s not the Messiah, he’s a very naughty boy!’ in the style of the legendary sketch in Monty Python’s Life of Brian.

Don’t panic, though. I don’t have a messiah complex.

I recently looked up the word messiah . It has several definitions: ‘a leader regarded as the saviour of a particular country, group or cause’, ‘a zealous leader of some causes or project’, ‘a deliverer’ and a ‘messenger’. I’m aiming to be them all.

My mission is to make you aware of exactly how important plants are; in fact, I am obsessed with this idea. I want to tell you all about them and what they do for us, how crucial they are for our survival, and why we should save them. Plants are the key to the future of the planet – for us and our children – yet they are taken for granted by billions every day and we are often dismissive of their benefits. I am frustrated, sometimes angry, at this ignorance and indifference.

I think this is a fair description of what Magdalena does, though the plants he talks about tend to be a narrow selection. Naturally enough they’re the ones he’s worked with. So while you don’t read many generalities about angiosperms you do get detail and ecological context for the plants like Ramosmania rodriguesii or Nymphaea thermarum which he has worked upon.

The book opens with his childhood and interest in Natural History in Franco’s shadow in 1970s and early 80s Spain. Franco died in 1975 and, for people outside the country, it might be difficult to understand some of the political context that Franco has in Spain, even now. Magdalena does a good and subtle job by connecting Franco’s wildlife policies with the wildfires that cause problems in Iberia today. The following chapter on his arrival in the UK explains how he got to work on some of the plants that he would later conserve. Also, if you think that because Kew is a garden that the students there are simply trainee gardeners then his account of the course will quickly correct you.

The next few chapters detail his work with café marron, Ramosmania rodriguesii and with conservation in Mauritius and Rodrigues. I knew of the plant, but not its name due to Douglas Adams writing about it in Last Chance to See. Café marron is the introduction into the ecological context of conservation. There is the problem of propagating the plant, but also the problem of making sure that the plant can then be reintroduced to the wild.

It’s a section where his passion for plants comes out well. But Magdalena doesn’t gloss over the problems of working with bureaucracies where people aren’t always given the information they need.

That evening, I returned. When I walked through the door, there was one of the garden labourers, chewing heartily and spitting husks on to a polythene bag.

They had promised me five seeds; there were only three in the bag.

‘Where did you get those seeds you are eating?’ I asked him.

‘On the island, we like to eat palm seeds. I have never eaten this species before,’ he replied.

I wanted to throttle him. But I was so stunned, all I did was ask, ‘Did they at least taste good?’

‘No, they weren’t ripe,’ he replied abruptly.

After Mauritius comes Magdalena’s work with water lilies. In particular, there’s his work on Nymphaea thermarum including the account of the theft of some plants at Kew. This moves us into sections on work in South America and Australia, where the water lilies are again used as the hook to bring in a wider discussion of the ecosystems.

While water lilies are the running theme in the second half of the book, they’re not the only topic. For example, Magdalena talks about his role in helping people in South America propagate plants including castaño, the brazil nut. Bolivia is an exporter of brazil nuts, and harvesting the nuts is a major source of income for some families. Despite the demand, it’s not a crop that has been farmed outside its native habitat. His techniques for propagating plants can also be applied to growing brazil nut trees, and this could be used in logged forest to draw back pollinators that live deeper in the forest.

Elsewhere in Peru, Magdalena encounters Equisetum giganteum, a horsetail, which is a kind of plant that was doing well in the Devonian period (roughly twice as old as the Jurassic).

It was a spectacular sight, about five metres tall, with five or six full-size stems – the rest were small runners which were starting to pop up, or larger stems which had lost their tops or were kinked. In some parts of the river bed we sank down in the mud to our knees. I felt as though I was in the Carboniferous period, surrounded by silt and a few sedges and aquatic plants, waiting for a dinosaur to appear. You would not expect to find a horsetail, which is aquatic, living in the deserts of Peru; it survives only because the rain god occasionally cries.

The book closes with a challenge Anyone Can Be a Messiah.

In your garden – or on your windowsill – you can grow endangered species. Take the chocolate cosmos (Cosmos atrosanguineus) from Mexico, which is now extinct in the wild and conserved through cultivation in gardens. By the early 1980s the only known plants were those at Kew, propagated from a single clone. Like the café marron it did not set seed for decades, until a lady in New Zealand managed to gather a few seeds from plants she was growing and raise some seedlings. It took a hundred years, and a journey from Mexico to Kew to New Zealand, then back to Kew, before it finally hit the Millennium Seed Bank freezer at Wakehurst. Or have a go at growing Abeliophyllum distichum (white forsythia) – a winter-flowering shrub that is endemic to South Korea and only found in several small populations there. It’s still listed as critically endangered. Then there’s Tecophilaea cyanocrocus, the Chilean blue crocus, which was thought to be extinct until a new population was discovered.

The book works because it brings together three elements. The knowledge and passion about plants are evident. The final element, the language, works perfectly to bring them out strongly on the page. Lose any one of those elements and this books would have been dull but worthy.

I do wonder if there could be a better title for the book. My worry is that it places the emphasis on the man more than his work. There’s a line in 24 Hour Party People that Tony Wilson says, something like: “I am a minor character in my own life story.” The Plant Messiah isn’t that extreme, but my impression of the book is that message is big a character as the messenger. A title that better reflects that would help.

My other criticism is that, while reading the ebook, I was thinking that some images would have been good. In fact, there are images but they’re all at the back. I can see why this happens in print media, but in an ebook there’s not really a strong penalty to including the images with the text.

These really are minor issues. While we might think of plants as static, the book runs with an urgency of a leopard. It shows you don’t need something small, furry, and cute to write a compelling tale of conservation.

Alun Salt

Alun (he/him) is the Producer for Botany One. It's his job to keep the server running. He's not a botanist, but started running into them on a regular basis while working on writing modules for an Interdisciplinary Science course and, later, helping teach mathematics to Biologists. His degrees are in archaeology and ancient history.

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