Carlos Magdalena: The man saving the world one plant at a time

Peter Woolrich

From climbing a human ladder to swimming with the crocodiles, there's nothing this Spanish botanist wouldn't do in the name of plants

Carlos Magdalena didn't crack a whip when he shouted at the Jeep's driver to stop, but he was wearing the same wide-brimmed fedora as Indiana Jones. Covered in five days of Australian Outback dust, he tried to ignore the shotgun-peppered "Crocodile Danger" sign as he waded into the lagoon. The 42-year-old Spanish botanist, based in the hot houses and labs of London’s Kew Gardens, thought he’d spotted a new waterlily species and it wouldn’t be the first time he’d risked his life doing his job. With his shoulder-length hair and conquistador’s beard Carlos looks every inch the intrepid explorer, his mission to save the world’s most endangered plants. As well as Harrison Ford’s film character, the botanical horticulturist is also known as the Messiah, the Code Breaker and the Plant Whisperer. He’s suffered dehydration in the planet’s most inhospitable deserts, driven through rivers to reach an elusive specimen and experienced altitude sickness in the Peruvian Andes, where he climbed a human ladder next to a towering drop to reach a rare flower.

 

The son of a florist, Carlos grew up roaming the peaks and valleys of northern Spain in search of natural wonders but quickly learned all was not well. The world’s fauna and flora was under threat and Carlos wasn’t the sort of person to stand idly by.

“Directly or indirectly plants provide the air we breathe, medicines, clothes, shelter, food and drink,” he says in a gentle though assertive voice. “Plants are our greatest yet humblest servants, caring for us in every way. Without them we wouldn't be here. It’s as simple as that.”

Collecting herbarium specimens of Nymphaea in Gladstone Lake, Western Australia

There are some 400,000 plant species, with many more waiting to be discovered, and it’s estimated that a quarter of them are facing extinction. “They need someone to speak-up on their behalf, someone who will say, ‘I will not tolerate extinction’, using whatever means possible to ensure their survival.

When you lose even one species there are dire consequences for everything else that depends on it—insects, birds and mammals, including humans.” Loss of habitat due to land clearance, particularly in tropical rainforests, poses the biggest single threat.

"Plants are our greatest yet humblest servants, caring for us in every way. Without them we wouldn't be here"

 

In 2003, the spaniard made his way to London, persuading Kew Gardens to take him on as an intern despite all the other candidates having more professional experience. Often peering into microscopes late into the night, his dedication to experimenting with germination techniques and coaxing life back into dried up seeds marked him out and he was offered a place on the prestigious Kew Diploma, a three-year horticultural course.

Before long Carlos came to understand that plants have a way of talking and to understand their needs, you had to listen to them. His work was daunting. Kew houses around 7m dried specimens in the herbarium and over 19,000 living species across its gardens. The associated Millennium Seed Bank holds 2bn seeds.

"A half-blind, giant tortoise had mistaken him and his backpack for a rival, and pursued him for several hours"

 

His early successes included helping to save the endangered café marron tree. Native only to Rodrigues Island in the Indian Ocean it hadn’t produced any seed since Victorian times and Carlos spent months working on a handful of available cuttings, ignoring those telling him he was wasting his time because all previous efforts had failed. Overcoming the disaster of a fellow botanist inadvertently pruning the most promising stem, Carlos eventually triumphed. “It was like scoring the winning goal in a World Cup final,” he says.

View of Rodrigues Island and its reef lagoon. "Most terrestrial ecosystems of Rodrigues are highly degraded. However, the conservation efforts and restoration areas provide great hopes for the future of the island’s ecosystems and the remaining surviving species that don't occur anywhere else in the world"

 

Stepping into the crocodile-infested waters of the Australian lagoon where he thought he’d spotted a new waterlily species, the botanist—who is married with a young son—recalled a previous encounter with a wild animal. In Mauritius, a half-blind giant tortoise had mistaken him and his backpack for a rival, or a mate, and pursued him for several hours. Looking down, the Spaniard realised he was mistaken about the lily.

Over the years the horticulturist made several visits to study, and help save Mauritius’ vitally important flora as well as educate local farmers about how their ecology would serve them better if it wasn’t destroyed. In his pursuit Carlos scaled a notorious mountain, his back pressed against a rock face as he shuffled along a narrow ledge.

"The giant pads of Victoria are known for being able to support heavy loads. In this picture, a not-so-large (by Victoria standards) Victoria cruziana easily carrying my son Matheo at the age of eight months at Kew’s Waterlily House"

Using a machete, the Spaniard then hacked his way through near impenetrable vegetation, but arriving at the summit there was a problem. What he thought was going to be a shrub with low multiple branches turned out to be 16ft tall, the only branches at the top. “We’ll have to form a human ladder,” he told the doubtful looking team. “The stockiest at the bottom, then two others and I’ll climb up.” A 300ft sheer drop waited if he fell.

Fingers outstretched, Carlos was still ten inches too short and was cursing his luck when someone suggested using a forked stick to pull the branch down. Now all the botanist had to do was get it back to London and work out how to pollinate it. “Conserving plants in Mauritius is like archaeology. Trying to fit all the pieces together is complicated to say the least.”

 

After suffering 10,000 ft altitude sickness in Bolivia where the only solution was to chew coca leaves alongside the indigenous tribes he was there to help, the next stop was the Peruvian desert. In scorching heat Carlos and his colleagues drove for 20 hours before their route was blocked by an enormous PVC pipeline. Low on fuel and recovering from going the wrong way, the group finally found the specimens they were after having missed the blooming season.

 

The world's smallest lily, nymphaea thermarum, was discovered in 1985 growing next to a single volcanic spring in rural Rwanda, but in 2008 the spring was diverted to provide water for a local laundry and the entire inch-wide species was obliterated. Some samples remained but no one could work out how to propagate them, that is until Carlos was sent some seeds by Bonn Botanic Gardens. Months of painstaking work later he finally cracked the code and the plants flowered.

Nymphaea thermarum is the smallest known species of waterlily in the world. You could easily grow a blooming specimen in a teacup

Back in Kimberley, Western Australia, one of the most isolated places on earth, Carlos was about to get back in the Jeep after his disappointment with the new waterlily species when, shading his eyes, he saw what appeared to be a narrow crescent-shaped lake in the distance. Persuading the others to get out and go with him, Carlos waded-in unable to believe what he was seeing. Thousands of waterlilies with spectacular slender purple and white flowers were all around. “I knew straight away they were a new species and it was like, boom, bingo!” It was how Indiana Jones must have felt finding the lost Ark of the Covenant. The plant is yet to be named.

The Plant Messiah by Carlos Magdalena is published by Penguin