Saving the Planet One Plant at a Time
They may not have cuddly fur or feathers, but plants are crucial to the planet and its ecosystems and to us.
Carlos Magdalena is the Tropical Senior Botanical Horticulturist at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, the largest botanical collection in the world. He has rescued several rare plants from extinction including Café Marron, brought back from a single tree, and the world’s smallest water lily, Nymphaea thermarum, and written a book about plant conservation – “The Plant Messiah“.
In this interview, Carlos reflects upon his career, how he got where he is, and the importance of plant conservation.
Why do you work in conservation?
Well, the answer to that has two parts. One is instinctive, I always liked biodiversity, I have that kind of obsessive biophilic thing in me. Since I was a kid I was always fascinated by biodiversity. I do this– I don’t have to think about it to do it. To study and protect all species is something that comes from the heart.
Also, when you think about it then you realise the importance of it. Basically there is no life without an ecosystem. An ecosystem is made of forms of life. If we cannot keep the biodiversity of the planet then we cannot keep going on as a species. It’s just suicidal not to do so.
What are your main activities in your current role?
Well, it’s a huge mix of things. My main role is to look after the collection of tropical plants which involves cleaning, reporting, propagating, dealing with pests, and dealing with environmental controls that keep them alive.
That’s most of it but then we’re also teachers because we have a diploma in botanical horticulture. I usually work with a couple of students every three months.
Besides this, Kew Gardens before the crisis of coronavirus had about two or three million visitors every year. We look for plants which are inspiring, that keep the quality of the display. There is an artistic side to it too.
There is also a science side to it, because sometimes we get a random scientist coming asking what early angiosperm we have which is blooming or looking for iridescent leaves, you name it .
There is also a conservation component because we are looking after very rare species of plants and sometimes you have to deal with new species to conserve that are going extinct.
There is a public side. Nowadays there are plenty of media outlets and sometimes you have to do interviews, or answer queries from the media.
Sometimes I travel collecting plants. Until recently, because my of book, I was making presentations in different countries. I sometimes travel to provide training. You never get bored.
What would you say is the best part of your job?
Well, I would say two things. One is to be able to work closeup and hands on with so many species at once. Because in this nursery where I work, we have something like 14,000 types of plants. Kew as a whole has 80,000 accessions (specimens) of living plants, so you never get bored.
Kew Gardens is that I work in 230 acres full of biodiversity. If you were going to look at the rates of biodiversity in Kew Gardens, even though it’s artificial, we have more species of plants per square metre than anywhere on the planet.
Yet this is 20 minutes from central London, so I have the best of both worlds. Sometimes feels like living in the massive European capital of the world, which is London, but on the other hand it feels like if I am traveling to the countryside to a place full of biological candies.
What are your least favourite parts of your job?
I guess that the least favourite part of my job is that there is so much work to do in conservation and you cannot even do 1% of it. It’s very frustrating. Sometimes you cannot do more because the day has a number of hours and then even if you were super-efficient, you still have to deal with lots of bureaucratic things such as to obtain permits and to get the plants through the quarantine systems and to get funds for doing the trips, and then try to coordinate. All making sure that you do not lose what you have.
That is the bit which I like the least, seeing how we’re losing so much biodiversity and being able to help only one plant at a time.
What are some of your highlights of your career?
One thing was when I managed to get the Café Marron to set a fruit and seeds for the first time in many decades in cultivation of the last specimen. I think that was the highlight of my career, or one of them. I was an intern at Kew Gardens in a temporary job. I was this young guy from Spain with a funny accent, who just arrived. You are just one of the people there, and there are hundreds.
Then after years of everybody saying, “This will never happen,” then this Spanish guy who nobody knows arrives and goes like, “Oh, I think I can do it,” and does it. I managed to then get a reputation for growing things that were very difficult.
Nymphaea thermarum (the world’s smallest water lily) was another one, the Nymphaea from Rwanda. I didn’t know it when I managed to grow it – I believed I had like 10 seeds left and then I made five plants out of it – but there were no more plants in cultivation. There were no more seeds in cultivation and the population in Rwanda was gone. If I had failed that one would have gone extinct straight away.
Apart from saving the species, we could then use the opportunity to make the plant conservation theme and bring it to the forefront of the news. It was great that, for a period in the media, the endangered thing was a plant.
Could you give a synopsis of the steps that you’ve taken in your career to get where you are now?
Well, that is a tricky thing because as I said before since I was a kid, I was fascinated by this. When I was 10, 12 years old, I realised that this is what I wanted to do. When I grew up, being Spanish and living in a small province of Northeast Spain in the ’80s, that sounded like I was crazy to everybody. If I had said I want to be an astronaut, they would have taken it better.
I don’t know how I ended up being here, to be honest. For years, and years this is what I wanted to do. When I was a young, 20-something, I managed to work a few jobs for a month or two with a particular animal species. I think the first time I got paid after doing some volunteer work with animals was sitting on a beach watching a nest of Oyster Catchers and recording the aspects of their biology.
I participated in many organisations that they were doing conservation, like Greenpeace, where they were in an office and they were making a campaign against these long fishing lines. You had these 20 kilometres of fishing lines with hooks which stay in the sea for years.
Then it got to a point that I was 20 or 30-something and I realised that I hadn’t managed to really make it a permanent career. So, I decided to come to London because “well, if anything fails, I will still become fluent in English”. Here there are a lot of organisations here that have links into the natural sciences.
What advice would you give to people who would like to follow a similar path?
The most important thing is to be passionately obsessive on this topic. I don’t think it’s easy for you to just arrive in a given place on a given moment in time and get the job you want. It’s going to require you having very open eyes for a long time before you see the job.
Sometimes you must be willing to sacrifice one of the sides of the triangle. There are jobs that you may like more or less, then there are jobs that are paying more or less, then there are jobs which you can do here or there. Maybe sacrifice the location to get the job you want. Or maybe you have to get paid very little to get a job that you like, where you need it not where they need it.
Maybe you work in this organisation, but not in the role I want but then I am inside it. Then I have a better view of what’s coming so maybe if I hold on for a while, I can then move to the position I want. Or I may have to change continents. I was working in Kew Gardens for four months with no pay as an intern but then I got paid and stayed there for two decades.
What would you say to the people who are going to read this about the importance of working with plants to save them?
Well, there are many things I would like to say. First, plants are one of the most important resources for humankind. Everything we eat is plants or things that eat plants, three out of four medicines come from plants, and, if we include algae in the seas, they are the basis for life on the planet.
They release all the oxygen we breathe. They take in carbon dioxide. They are much more important than as decoration with some nice flowers along the side of the road. There is way more to plants than meets the eye. There is a huge need for this.
It’s clear to me that if we’re going to do conservation long term, there should be much more room for plant people, not only from the botanic side but from the horticultural side. Very often people say: “plant a tree.” Plant a tree can be an environmental catastrophe. As a Spanish person, we are absolutely clogged with Australian eucalyptus where there should be oak forest and birds.
Here in the UK, the motto on planting trees should be, “Stop cutting them.” If you live in a meadow without mowing, you leave it 10 years and it becomes like a shrub, and then you leave it for 20 and it’s a forest. Any kind of restoration project you’re going to have to have a plant side to it to cater to historical habitat and provide ecosystems for animals.
Very often we try to protect the animals and never the plants. I think there is a lot of room from stopping pollution, to ecosystems services, to restoration, to climate change, to medicines. It’s just endless isn’t it?. Plants hold the solutions to many of the problems we face.
Images credit: Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.