The Plant Messiah’s manifesto

Carlos Magdalena – Botanical Horticulturist at The Tropical Nursery, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew – was first dubbed the ‘El Mesías de las Plantas’ in a Spanish newspaper. But it wasn’t until Sir David Attenborough interviewed him for The Kingdom of Plants series that his ‘Plant Messiah’ moniker came into being. From there his mission became known to a wider world. An extraordinary mission of bringing the world’s most endangered plants back from the brink, while also reminding us of the importance of plants and how we depend on them every day of our lives.

“Plants are not merely some living things in our lives,
they are the pop stars of our planet.”

A messiah with a mission

Carlos Magdalena wants you to know how important plants really are. He wants us all to be conscious of the role they play for humanity – he’s obsessed with this idea. And he says so in the first pages of his recently published book The Plant Messiah: a colourful hardback that tells the inspirational story of how he devotes his life to saving incredible species. The story begins with an introduction about how the messiah moniker was adopted, and his confession that his family love to mock him for it. They imagine his mum shouting from a Kew Gardens balcony: “He’s not the messiah. He’s a very naughty boy!” in the style of the legendary Monty Python Life of Brian sketch.

Despite his celestial nickname, The Plant Messiah is an unassuming character who is most often spotted near aquatic plants, dressed in Kew uniform and wearing chunky glasses that frame a set of eyes that have seen many beautiful things. A conversation with him turns out to be a humbling one. It’s easy to feel mesmerised by his passion and knowledge. He talked to Let it Grow at great length about every plant question we asked, and while it was all very magical, he also spoke seriously about the urgency associated with plants and the threat to their continued existence.

At the forefront of plant preservation

Humankind has affected our planet in many ways, and biodiversity – the full complexity and variety of life – is being lost at an unprecedented rate. One in five of the world’s plant species is now at risk of being completely wiped out. Carlos says he is speaking up on behalf of these pants. They are plants that can’t speak, but want to say: “We won’t tolerate extinction!” Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew is pioneering in its conservationist work, and it is here – in the Tropical Nursery – that Carlos’s heart found a home. It’s here that he can live his mission.
He’s been working with Kew for over fifteen years and during this time has managed to rescue and propagate the world’s tiniest water lily (the Nymphaea thermarum, native to Rwanda) – the highly delicate and nerve-wracking task of playing with last five (!) seedlings on the planet. He’s travelled to remote and dangerous parts of the world like Australia, Peru and Bolivia to discover rare species, and he’s discovered entirely new species along the way too. He brings all of his discoveries back to Kew’s moist units, where he uses his magic touch to help them grow and propagate using pioneering techniques.

︎︎︎    Find out more about conservation at Kew

Sharing knowledge of the magic of plants
Carlos believes that plants are our greatest yet most humble servants, caring for us every day, in every way. “Without them, we would not survive,” he says – it’s as simple as that. “Plants are not merely some living things in our lives. They are the pop stars of our planet!” As Carlos lives so close to the plant world and knows all about its intricacies, we wondered and asked him what was the most beautiful thing he’d seen a plant do. After pondering a while, he tells us he is “in awe of resilience”. The way nature reacts to natural disasters, he uses the atomic bomb of Hiroshima as an example: “Even in these extreme circumstances there are plants that come back from it – they offer some hope. There’s something very poetic about it.” He also shared a story of his own about finding tiny dust-like seeds of the Lobelia vagans plant, that were feared lost. They were found stuck to the glue of an empty envelope at Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank and he managed to save and propagate them! “I just find it amazing that such a tiny seed contains the whole DNA and instructions for creating an entire population.” And seeds that have been surviving for nearly 3000 years, “They can germinate and within a few weeks and flower as if nothing has happened. It’s like the phoenix rising from the ashes!”

Even our houseplants have a language of their own. Carlos encourages us to look closely and think more deeply. “You can look at a plant as much as you like. It might look like it’s not doing anything, but they are in fact doing lots of things, constantly.” He gives another example of a Monstera in the forest. “Growing upwards, sideways, down and in all directions. It could be travelling through the forest for thousands of years existing as the same plant. Plants live in totally different time dimensions. They almost escape time.” 

Wonders of water lilies

Carlos has an affinity with all kinds of tropical plants and he takes a liking to their showy exuberance. His first love though, is the water lily, a mysterious flower that sparked his imagination from a young age. He admires how they rise up magically out of the water and how some species bloom during the dark of night. What can we learn from such plants? So much it seems: “There was this guy called Monet. He invented a whole artist movement just by looking at one. Buddhism came out of the observation of a Lotus flower. You just never know where a plant is going to get you,” he laughs.

“This guy called Monet invented a whole art movement just by looking at one. Buddhism came out of the observation of a Lotus flower. You just never know where a plant is going to get you.”

Anyone can be a messiah

Anyone can be a messiah and “You only need to have a spark of interest” assures Carlos, because interest leads to knowledge, that knowledge leads to care, and care to action. But what about those in the city who feel they have completely lost touch with nature? “Just go back to it.” He assures there is so much that goes unnoticed. “In the city, you may think that you’re away from it all, but in fact, we are just blind. Even a dandelion has beautiful things going on: it has a very interesting reproductive system and there are many species that can be found in a single town.”

Photography Jake Kenny © Let it Grow

It’s true that if we start tuning in, we can discover fascinating things. Carlos’s suggestion: think about what in the natural world interests you, make sure you develop your knowledge, get in contact with it and feel the connection. “Nature is always waiting to be discovered. Gardening, landscapes, micro bacteria – you name it. I’m sure that with all biodiversity and the width of nature, you can find something that interests you.” It’s easy to start. Did you know it’s even possible to grow endangered species at home? Carlos ends by telling us about the chocolate cosmos (Cosmos atrosanguineus) from Mexico that grows beautifully on a windowsill. So, as he concludes in his book: “Let’s green up the world and plant our future!”