The tiny islands of Mauritius and Rodrigues, which sit in an otherwise empty stretch of the Indian Ocean east of Madagascar, share a notorious distinction in the world of conservation: home to at least 30 native plant species that have stopped reproducing in the wild, they are considered “islands of the living dead.” Uninhabited for millions of years, the islands and their unique flora — and the host of animals, many of them similarly rare, that their ecosystems support — have been decimated by human activity since a succession of Portuguese, Dutch and French colonists began living on the islands around 1600. Forests were cleared for farms; invasive species like pigs and guavas were introduced and have now also colonized large swaths of the islands.
It’s on Rodrigues that Carlos Magdalena opens his new memoir, “The Plant Messiah: Adventures in Search of the World’s Rarest Species.” Magdalena, a senior botanical horticulturist at London’s Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, introduces readers to one of the island’s zombie plants, the café marron: a small, glossy-leaved tree that’s continuously covered with tiny white flowers. Long believed to be extinct, a single living specimen was discovered in the 1980s and quickly became a destination for both curious tourists and locals seeking it out as a folk remedy for hangovers and venereal disease. After the tree was hacked down to a stump in the middle of the night a fence was erected, and then a fence around the fence. “After millions of years of freedom, the last plant in the wild had to be caged to protect it from humans,” Magdalena writes.
The stump resprouted and one piece was carefully cut off in order to ensure the species’ survival. It was whisked away to Kew, where the cutting was grown into new plants (as is the case with many trees and woody shrubs, cuttings can sprout roots, creating clones of the plant they were taken from), giving the café marron a lifeline — but not a future. The plants tended to at Kew as well as those that were eventually reintroduced to the wild still did not set fruit and produce seeds. The café marron trees Kew returned to Rodrigues were “an ever-blooming reminder of what had been lost, nothing more than hopeless cases sentenced to life imprisonment, captive in cages.” That is, they would have been if it weren’t for Magdalena.
Growing up in the Asturias in northwestern Spain, Magdalena helped his parents care for the finca they farmed, and his mom taught him about the plants that grew wild in the mountains and valleys that survived Franco’s push to squeeze profit out of all Spanish land. When he landed an internship at Kew in 2003, he by no means had the credentials to work at one of the world’s best botanical gardens in the world — but he was passionate and he could grow anything, including, eventually, the café marron. Since then, Magdalena has played a key role in helping to conserve a number of dramatically endangered species, like a lobelia flower that would have gone extinct were it not for some seeds that stuck to the glue on an envelope, and another Mauritian species known as “the loneliest palm tree on the planet.”
Just as it opens on an island wrecked by colonialism, the Eurocentrism of botanical horticulture and its attendant problems are discussed throughout “The Plant Messiah.” After an endangered water lily is stolen from Kew, Magdalena reflects on the complicated notion of ownership of wild species, noting that in 1876 the gardens bought smuggled rubber-tree seeds from Henry Wickham, who was known in Brazil both as the Prince of Thieves and the Executioner of the Amazon. Other white collectors, including Joseph Dalton Hooker — “one of Kew’s most celebrated directors,” according to Magdalena — took plants freely from around the world, building both the collections at gardens like Kew and personal fortunes by introducing exotic trees, flowers and shrubs into the nursery trade.
Today, Magdalena and his colleagues are more cautious about making endangered plants available to commercial growers, and will only do so when the community a given species originated from is paid a kind of royalty to support continued conservation efforts. Even still, “The Plant Messiah” contains very few moments in which indigenous knowledge informs conservation efforts. Instead, information flows from Kew to the locals, such as when Magdalena and his colleagues teach people in rural Bolivia how to propagate Brazil nut trees from cuttings (foraging for the nuts, which only grow in the wild, is a major source of income in some parts of the country). In other instances, locals are seen outright harming the endangered species they live alongside: snacking on the seeds of a rare palm that were destined for Kew, for example, or weeding the seedlings of another nearly extinct palm out of the flower bed planted under its shade.
Questions of representation aside, for an avowed plant geek it is fascinating to follow Magdalena as he travels from remote Australian billabongs full of rare water lilies to the dry forests of western Peru, where the last gnarled huarango trees grow in the shadow of the Andes. But the greater accomplishment of “The Plant Messiah” is the compelling case that Magdalena makes from caring about plants in general. When shown a picture of a monkey in a rainforest, he writes, people see the animal but not the host of plant species that support its existence. Such an image doesn’t just show a mammal, according to Magdalena — rather, it’s a depiction of biodiversity. With an estimated one out of five plant species threatened with extinction, Magdelena argues that all species must be protected. “I believe that every species has a right to live without justifying its existence and should not be wiped out by recklessness or economic interest...” he writes. “Destroy one species and you give yourself permission to destroy them all.”
Blackmore, who writes about food, culture and the environment, is an editor for Popula, a publication launching later this year.
Doubleday: 272 pp., $26.95