BOOK REVIEW: The Plant Messiah's Mission to Revive

By Carol Buckley.

The Plant Messiah: Adventures in Search of the World’s Rarest Species is written in memoir style by Carlos Magdalena, who was named 'el mesías de las plantas' by a Spanish journalist in 2010. As a senior botanical horticulturalist at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, he has brought several endangered species back from the brink through his practical and inventive mind, curiosity and tenacity, and experience.

Magdalena Saves Rare Species on the Mascarene Islands

Magdalena begins with a prologue describing his introduction to the café marron plant (Ramosmania rodriguesi), of which there was only one extant in the wild, on the island of Rodrigues in the Indian Ocean. The café marron is one of those plants that, considered extinct, are miraculously stumbled upon. In this plant’s case, it had not been seen for fifty years until a schoolboy found it.

Magdalena’s endeavor to propagate the plant, not by cutting but by growing viable seed, took him to Rodrigues, part of the Republic of Mauritius. His work there also involved plants on the islands of Mauritius and Réunion (which, with the other islands, form the Mascarene Islands). In describing his attempt to propagate seeds from the café marron, Magdalena introduces the reader to the dilemmas involved in plant propagation, including identifying male and female flowers (the café marron is dioecious, producing separate male and female plants), proper tools, and access (he had to work with government agencies to obtain permission).

One of the most amusing aspects of his work on the Mascarene Islands occurred when he wanted to reintroduce an Agraecum cadetii orchid into the wild on Mauritius (it is endangered there, but not on Réunion). He ingeniously used pantyhose to suspend and give growing room to the orchid he hoped to attach to a tree branch, thus sparing the roots of the plant and the bark of the tree.

The account of the Agraecum cadetti evokes Magdalena’s storytelling at its best: when he is describing the circumstances of geography and fauna surrounding a plant’s survival. With the Agraecum cadetti, he ascertained some aspects of the mysterious pollinator, and learned from other researchers who’d used a night-vision camera, that this orchid is the only known plant in the world that is pollinated by a cricket! In the case of the Roussea simplex on Mauritius, it is the only known plant in the world that has the same pollinator and seed distributer, the rare blue-tailed gecko.

Messiah's Memoir Lacks Eye of a Salient Narrator

While the roughly two-thirds of the book given to Magdalena’s conservation work on Mascarene plants is revealing, it seems out of balance with the later Antipodal and South American chapters. Perhaps he thought that his work in the one geographic area set up his further experiences. However, it might have served his work better to write a second book. Or, he could have slimmed some of the earlier chapters by leaving out some important, but well-known information, such as his description of the destroyers of natural environments. And, because his book is written in the first person, I think he felt he had to intersperse amusing remarks throughout. However, what he has accomplished in his time, going from gardener at Kew to a leading horticulturalist, deserves the salient and objective eye of an outside narrator.

One could argue that Magdalena's book is supposed to appeal to the layman (the cover is a little gaga), but missing are illustrations throughout that would give more of a picture to the novice (the images are all collected on several pages in the middle), and the text does not flow. I feel this is

Magdalena dons a Victoria cruziana hat while offering a V. cruziana bouquet.

something that should be read in spurts by the average reader. I believe it is truly geared more toward the true horticulturalist to whom the Latin names and dense information would not be as challenging as it was for a novice like me. (I must admit I stopped reading at page 163 of 253 pages of text.)

I enjoyed his description of his hometown in Asturias, Spain, and his rise at Kew. As a visual person, I questioned whether the drawings at the ends of chapters related to the flora described, and again, I would have preferred to see pictures of what he was describing along with the pertinent text. His photos are quite amazing, especially those of the Victoria cruziana (a water lily from the Amazon) and the tiny Nymphaea thermarum, extinct in the wild, which he managed to propagate through creative use of carbon dioxide. And while an index would have been nice, there is a wonderful glossary at the end of the book.