Carlos Magdalena, the “the Plant Messiah/Whisperer” is a senior botanical horticulturist quoted as having the uncanny ability to bring plants back from the brink of extinction. He has worked at Kew Gardens, which he describes as a “museum of living things,” for fourteen years. He is fascinated by plants, how they live, breathe and function and the immensely important role they play for humanity.
Without plants the planet would be lifeless. For Carlos the loss of plant species globally but especially in the tropics is alarming. He is dedicated to do what he can to use the resources at Kew to save what can be saved before it is too late.
Carlos was born in 1972, in Gijon, Asturias, Spain, a little known part of Europe that is a “misty, moist, wet, damp, cold, cloudy, mossy, Atlantic piece of land.” Carlos enthuses that “Asturias is a very unusual and yet-to-be discovered part of Europe.” boasting “the largest patch of primary deciduous forest, the last viable population of brown bear and the largest of wolf in Western Europe. Other biological jewels in the crown include the highest densities of otter, boar and chamois on the continent.” Right from his earliest life, this enchanting geographical combination of mountain, sea and rain inspired carlos to a lifestime fascination with biological diversity.
Carlos’ family were all involved in one way or another with plants, for example, Carlos’s mother was a florist and grandfathers farmers. However, Carlos’ early passion for flora and fauna was unprecedented and drove his family slightly mad until “a ban on feathery/furry family members took place.” This ban did not include a large aviary in his parents' orchard or aquariums, of which he had many.
After years working in Spain on various plant related projects Carlos relocated to London and began an internship at Kew. This went well and soon he won a place on the prodigious Kew Diploma. Today he is still there having secured a permanent position in the Tropical Nursery.
A Mission in this Life
Carlos is greatly alarmed by the current crash in biodiversity on our planet that has been called the “6th mass extinction event.” The last one happened 65 million years ago when the dinosaurs and other species were wiped out by a giant meteorite crashing into the mexican desert. Today, species are going extinct as a result of human activities, principally, habitat destruction, excessive extraction of natural resources and climate change.
Carlos says that “the value of a species is much greater than a piece of art.” Each species is a unique evolutionary experiment that cannot be recreated. We have no idea exactly what role each species plays in the biosphere or what it might contribute to human society. Every plant is a potential chemistry lab creating useful substances we can use. More than this, people like Carlos are deeply inspired and moved by the diversity of life that surrounds us. Conserving biodiversity is not just about what plants and animals can do for us but about celebrating the wonderful diverse world we live on and all the mysteries and new things we have to discover. Other species have value just because they exist.
Carlos sees a plant nursery as “a noah’s arc that travels through time” as well as space. The work of him and others like him creates special reservoirs of diversity for species away from their homes which may be getting ransacked by extractive industries. For example, the world’s smallest lily was discovered in 1985 by Eberhard Fischer, a German botanist. It used to grow only in one hot volcanic spring, in a place called Mashyuza in rural Rwanda. In 2008, the hot spring where the wildflower lived was diverted to provide water for a local laundry. Immediately, the entire species was obliterated in its natural habitat, only Fischer’s samples remained.
Fischer was able to keep his precious lily specimens alive, but no one was able to work out how to make them propagate so that they could reproduce (ie. get the seeds to grow on to a flower size, closing the reproductive cycle of the plant). The tiny lily might have been doomed were it not for the intervention of Carlos’ magic green fingers. Samples where sent to Kew where eventually they were passed to the “code-breaker” who discovered that by exposing the plant to the air it could be made to flower and reproduce. One day the lily could be returned to its special place in the wild world - that exceptional spring in Rwanda.
Why Carlo's work matters
The loss of species from our planet has been compared to rivets popping out of an aeroplane. The first rivets can be lost without problems, but, eventually, the plane starts to disintegrate and a crash is inevitable. Nobody can know for sure which species it is okay to lose and which are critical. What we do know is that the more we lose the more fragile whole ecosystems become. If we lose too many species from the Amazon the whole global system could crash which would have devastating repercussions for life as we know it.
Kew gardens and Carlos Magdelena are on the front lines battling this immense danger for the whole of humanity and for the future of life on this planet. Every species, seed and habitat they manage to nurture in their gardens can be used in the future to rehabilitate wild habitats.
Although Carlos is quiet, soft spoken and modest it is clear he understands the importance of his work. He says “I am doing what I should be doing.” He is an inspiring man who has found a way to use his skills to make a significant and valuable contribution to the world.
We might not have the skills nor experience that Carlos has, nor access to the facilities at Kew Gardens. However, we all can get involved in efforts to protect our precious biodiversity against further loss. This massively under-reported issue could have potentially huge repercussions for us and especially for our children. If we want them to grow up in a planet abundant with wild animals then we must take action now to ensure that large parts of the planet remain wild and habits remain where species can thrive. Without this balance our world may well change beyond recognition.
If we have a garden or outdoor space we can help local wildlife by growing local plants species and attracting pollinators. This is also hugely satisfying and nourishing. Grow Wild is one initiative that offers a way to do this in easy wildflower seed kits for community use.
There are many charities that are working to protect global biodiversity. Kew raises funds through the Kew Foundation to support scientific research into plants and produce an annual landmark study on The State of the World’s Plants. Find out more about how to support Kew on their website here
Carlos featured in David Attenborough's Kingdom of Plants
Director & Producer: Robbie Lockie | Videographer & Editor: Lewis Noll | Article: Matt Mellen