Carlos Magdalena
The Plant Messiah

We met Carlos Magdalena, better known as 'The Plant Messiah', under the mystical circumstances of a total solar eclipse. In this environment we expected nothing short of magic, and that is exactly what we got.

Behind the fantasy-like-glasshouses of Kew Gardens, we meet with this native Spaniard where horticulturalists work tirelessly around the clock studying the behaviour of plants from around the world.
Spending an hour with Carlos is an enlightening experience. This is a man who understands the richness of our biodiversity – the causality between our actions and the environment. The world that Carlos lives in is far from that of the ordinary city dweller, however, he makes us see that even a house pot plant has a language and that our future as a species depends on our awareness of this.

Carlos, it’s a pleasure to meet you. So as far as we know, plants communicate through very intricate ecosystems. How much do we actually know about their systems and how do you approach your work in terms of how humans interact with plants?

I try to take myself out of the centre of the universe and put myself in the place of a plant. I also try to think about things in a very abstract way, because there are many ‘facts’ we don’t ‘see’ or at least don’t easily perceive. For instance, chemical messages; it is something that mostly escapes us when we use our natural senses.

You hear about sophisticated molecules such as hormones, growth regulators and DNA. While all of it can be studied methodically by scientists in a lab, it’s very difficult to understand; the languages are many, the number of conversations occurring at the same time is simply overwhelming. Although we have built-up masses of information and a deep understanding, I still feel like a kind of alien being able to tap into conversations between people from many different places in an attempt to find out what the planet is really saying. In a single leaf there are constellations of cells, each containing numerous ‘chatty people’, and they are all delivering speeches at a chemical level.

“In a single leaf there are constellations of cells each containing numerous ‘chatty people’, and they are all delivering speeches at a chemical level.”

Carlos Magdalena

When you look at the incredible diversity of the plant world, it’s just mesmerising the variance of shapes, designs and colours. If we only look at the diversity of shapes found in native British trees – a tiny percentage of the world’s plant diversity – it is easy to conclude that each species has a specific leaf shape. None of this happens by chance. Shape and texture are the response of the plant to dissipate the strength of the wind, reduce or increase the transpiration, fight off the pests, evacuate or capture more or less light or water, or maybe dust. Everything has a little magic. Yet, everything has a meaning.

As animals, it is a very strange experience to try and understand plants. They do not have, for instance, an immune system like we do, composed of ‘free moving cells’ that are ‘soldier like’ and patrolling their organisms. Yet they are capable of triggering immune responses when under threat by a pest or pathogen. There is interesting research that suggests some plants, when infected with an insect or fungal disease, are able to send messages to other plants to warn them. Other plants then start to increase chemical defences specific to that issue.
Other evidence suggests that some species are able to send chemical signals that attract the predators of the pest they are being affected by. In my opinion, we have only seen the tip of the iceberg in terms of plant communication. Interestingly, there are internal conversations between cells inside plants, but even more interestingly, science is starting to see that they actually ‘talk’ (if we can use that term for chemical signalling) to other kingdoms, such as fungi or insects.

Plants do not have a nervous system with a central organ that coordinates the activity, like we animals do. They do not have a brain, so how do you communicate with no brain and no nervous system? How do you respond to stimuli? (and they do this very well and constantly) It’s really difficult to understand and to research, especially when the entities that study them do have a brain and nervous cells. Put yourself into the place of a plant: no brain, you can’t move fast (although many plants have very rapid movements), you can’t run for shelter or water or nutrients. You are ‘fixed’ to one place. Yet you manage to obtain information, translate it, make a response, attract a pollinator for reproduction, then use another animal or natural phenomenon for seed dispersal, host bacteria to help you with nutrients and establish an ‘internet-like’ network with the fungi in the soil, connecting you with other plants or perhaps even your own progeny. Fascinating, at least to me. No magic, no witchery, just another frontier of knowledge that we had only started to unravel.

You were born in Gijon, Asturias. You mentioned in a previous interview that you, “come from a misty, moist, wet, damp, cold, cloudy, mossy, Atlantic piece of land”. How did your birthplace and background inform your work?

In many different ways. Firstly, because the whole natural history of the place is quite incredible. I come from a place which still has a large population of wild bears. There are wolves, capercaillies and wild salmon in the rivers. There are a lot of plants that are unique to that area, also some animals that only live there or distant places like Russia. There are areas that contain primary temperate rainforests. But also mountains and high rainfall means there is mining and industry. So I had both worlds around the corner; untouched unique nature and wildlife along with massive industrial areas, some of the towns being amongst the most polluted in Europe – 30 minutes was all it took to travel from heaven to hell. Also, I come from a place that is culturally more like the Atlantic cultures found in Scotland, England or Wales. We drink cider instead of wine, play bagpipes, eat a lot of pork and have a Celtic background. Because the weather and biodiversity there was closer to the British one, the cultural background was also similar – the apple trees grew better than wine vines.

It was also clear to me that we had a massive impact on the environment; be it farmers using farming techniques that allowed one of the highest diversities of orchid in a single meadow in Europe or the most depleted of life and toxic rivers you can imagine, due to charcoal mining. Clearly, to some extent, the environment we live in plays a vital role in who we are, but also what we do has a clear impact on the way the environment is, like a fish that bites its own tail. Sociologically, it was also interesting to live with all sorts of people; from transhumant farmers that spent the summers in alpine meadows and moved down to the coast in winter, to engineers that make heavy steel structures to be used in a nuclear power facility; from living cultures that date from 1000s of years ago to very modern and complex societies, all along the same river, talking the same language but living in a different world.

You said in an interview, “Psychologists say that every child has an early development stage where it is very interested in animals and forms of life. I guess that I never overcame that stage (I may even need therapy!)”

Well, I have a natural admiration for all forms of life; I find them more interesting than anything, on many levels. On a scientific level, they are second to none. From the design point of view, it’s the biggest source of inspiration you can get; if a concept has not been used in nature, then it is likely it is not a good concept.

As I said, I have a natural ‘built-in’ awe and admiration for nature. Most kids have that admiration or curiosity for the natural world – I just never ‘grew out’ of that phase. However, do not get confused; this is not a childish behaviour, it is just that as society we are extremely good at killing that natural interest in nature that we all have. In me it has somehow survived into adulthood. I never moved on and left it behind, I still am stuck in step one, which is a fascination of nature.

However, this does seems to go across age-ranges and even across cultural, religious and national barriers. But often enough, at some point, many of us stop looking at ladybirds and butterflies as we have these stigmas that we build up such as ‘that’s for girls’, or ‘it doesn’t make me any money’, so we remove it from our daily agenda. Whatever the reason is, there seems to be a trend of disconnecting from nature.

Seas rising, glaciers retreating, ice-caps melting, forests decreasing, humans increasing the population numbers. We want to eat more. Meanwhile, we don’t become more efficient; we become much more wasteful, we destroy anything that may arise in the landscape. War, conflicts, famine, natural disasters. Yes, ok, it may all sound very political, indeed, but at the end of the day it is simple; one of the things I find really interesting is that after all, most of it happens only because of this disconnection we have to nature and the environment.

It’s almost representative of all humans; at some point along the trajectory we lost our interest in relying on nature because we feel we don’t need it and everything is synthetic, but actually, it’s not true; we are still relying 100% on natural resources and we cannot escape the reality that it is not us versus nature; we are nature.

“If a concept has not been used in nature, then it is likely it is not a good concept.”

Carlos Magdalena

“There exists no shortage of wonder drugs waiting to be found in rainforests” – A statement from a well-known ethnobotanist, Mark Plotkin. He went on to say that we know little or nothing about the chemical composition of 98.6% of the Brazilian flora, despite the fact that, even now, the value of medicines derived from tropical plants is more than $6 billion a year.

Totally! Actually, coffee is the second most traded substance in the world and the coffee industry is one of the biggest employers in the world. Now, people do not tend to see coffee as a ‘drug’ nor as a medicine, however, on a Monday morning at 6am it is clearly a medicine or, at least, a ‘fix’. But if you think more in the lines of drugs in ‘pill format’, meaning commercialised and doctor-prescribed drugs, you will find that one of the most traded ‘brand products’ are medicines which are used to treat cholesterol (statins) and they were discovered quite recently in fungi, also in some cereals. Medicines for HIV have been found in plants as well. Even the ones which may have been designed in labs once, it was later found that those chemicals or similar ones were already found in some form or another in wild plants or fungi.

So it’s very easy to forget, but the most important items for human survival and wealth is plants and fungi. They produce all the energy that humans need for most of our activities. Even fossil fuels like coal and petrol come from fossil plants and ecosystems from other eras. Now by burning that and releasing that into the air we are warming up the planet because that carbon dioxide gets released into the air. This alone demonstrates the fact that plants in distant geological eras were capable of capturing that CO2 from the air and fixing it deep in the ground. Plants, algae, fungi, are the best bet we can place on: a) obtaining alternative biofuels to fossil resources of energy, b) they could potentially fix all that CO2 excess that we are releasing in the atmosphere and c) producing food for us and the animals we eat. This is so obvious yet so easily missed.

The human fuel, which is basically food, is 100% plants or things that eat plants. We mostly rely on 6-7 crops worldwide; things like wheat, bananas, rice, etc. Yet there are hundreds of thousands of species of plant out there. If you look at the size and yield of early crops of maize and what they produce per plant at present, one can easily conclude that there is a HUGE potential to be released and that each species is in fact a treasure. We cannot also miss the fact that relying on so few crops is risky as one crop can be wiped out quickly by a pest, and let’s not rule out other factors such as global warming.

I want to understand the original point. Do we need it? I am playing devils advocate here – I am just fascinated, because in your work you’ve been described as a code-breaker and part of your work is putting the pieces of the puzzle back together. Is there any point, because we’re past this threshold now where humanity has almost admitted we can create whatever we want through technology?

That’s part of the problem, thinking like that; thinking that we can do everything while being detached from nature when we actually can’t, or at least we can’t afford it at many levels. We can’t produce all this oxygen; we cannot produce it at the scale that is happening naturally. We can get carbon dioxide and under vacuum conditions split it with a laser to produce carbon monoxide and oxygen. Carbon monoxide is toxic, and lasers and creating vacuum conditions require energy, thus fuels. So far I’m sticking to planting something.

We have this ‘god’ mentality. Some may say, ‘we can go to the moon and back’. But they forget that the astronauts came back from the moon inside a capsule that used several layers of cork oak as the main source of isolation from the scorching heat of the friction against the atmosphere on reentry. Where ever you look, there is a plant involved, and yes, ok, nowadays, we use some hi-tech ceramic to do the same job, yet that ceramic is way less sustainable, needs masses of fuel to be made and its use has an overall negative impact. Yet cork oak is sustainable and supports an array of biodiversity. There is not yet a remote possibility of living as isolated organisms.
No single organism will thrive in this planet without the interaction with other ones.

I want to know a little more about what you do here? I think about you as some kind of rogue activist, like Indiana Jones in the glass houses. I’m interested in the story and your work.

Let’s start with a little history: Kew was started by King George III, ‘The farmer’. He was living in Kew palace and clearly he knew what the potential of biodiversity was, he was also the first British Monarch to study science systematically, including agriculture. He started keeping different races of cattle around Kew Palace and his wife Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Streliz was an amateur Botanist who developed the Kew Gardens. History has demonstrated then that a batch of seeds could prop or topple the economy of a country – the rubber tree could serve as a good example of this.

You’re talking about Henry Wickham? In the summer of 1876 Kew paid £700 to Henry Wickham for thousands of rubber seeds that he smuggled out of the Amazonian rainforest.

Indeed. Quite controversial at the time as it collapsed some economies in South America while releasing a biological asset to the rest of the world, breaking a monopoly in times where rubber was all so important due to the lack of other petrol based materials, such as plastic.

“History has demonstrated that a batch of seeds could prop or topple the economy of a country.”

Carlos Magdalena

So, what’s Kew’s purpose?

Despite times moving on, and not any longer being a part of the Victorian times, we do however still realise the increasing importance of preserving biodiversity, especially plant and fungi resources. But there is a problem, a big one: there is about 400,000 species of plant, and a huge number of unknown ‘yet to be discovered’ species. So first thing we do is taxonomy; someone has to be classifying, cataloging and exploring, sampling, naming. If you do not know what it is out there how on earth could you even think of protecting it or using it as resource? This is a titanic task. A timeless task too, as the historical herbarium specimens have to be kept forever as reference. And yes, 400,000 species are good news to us. But how scary is this figure: one out of four, so 100,000 is in real danger of becoming extinct in the near future. So we also work on knowing the trends, occurrences and historical distribution of the species and guess trends and drive priorities.

Eventually we also found those that are clinging to life with less than a few individual plants left. It is not the first time we stopped extinction from the last plant or the last batch of seeds. Actually, there has been a case in which a species was recovered from the last few living cells of an otherwise 95% dead embryo. It is that bad. Thus conservation stems from us and the botanical work we do. Several million herbarium specimens collected for more than 250 years and tidy housekeeping gives you a lot of accurate information towards the rarity of a species

Then, and because this is the 21st century, we do work at the molecular level too. Taxonomy, evolution, chemistry, all can be traced back at a molecular level with the many DNA analysis that are currently available. And plants have hidden micro-morphological universes that are equally important and resourceful to humankind.

We are also a green Noah’s Ark that sails on the time making sure that there is a back-up of everything that seems to be disappearing, if given a chance. Be it in our glasshouses or the Millennium Seed Bank. This makes Kew to be one of the most biodiverse places on the planet, even if artificially maintained.

We are a part of history and a world heritage site. It’s a lovely place, a great venue too. It is also an incredible education facility and, after all, one of the best gardens on the planet. ‘All along the Pagoda tower’: we are a botanical town in the middle of an all-so buzzing London. You can come with a blanket and a picnic basket and enjoy the sun and the birds singing if none of the above mentioned items capture your attention or interest. At the end of the day, we are a great resource to humankind at both collective and individual levels.

However, here comes the rant: many take all this for granted, all the research which is going on, all the up keeping with the heritage site and gardening icon/flagship and all the education and conservation that is being carried out. At the moment we are having a hard time getting society to pay us back.

What do you hope to achieve as this ‘plant messiah’ – as this activist – with this beautiful backdrop of Kew gardens, what is your legacy?

Stopping a single extinction would be an achievement and I guess I have contributed to do that at least temporarily. While this is not enough by any means, I hope this has demonstrated that something can be done and more importantly inspires others, especially the junior generations which are likely to be more exposed to video games than tadpoles and zebras.

I’m partially in debt to people like David Attenborough, Jane Goodall, Jacques Cousteau, Konrad Lorenz, Gerall Durell, or the not so well known out Spain, Felix Rodriguez de la Fuente. They fascinated me when I was a kid and I was always saying, ‘I want to be like them when I grow up’. So if I could achieve and deposit a grain of sand to what they have achieved towards influencing other people, I would be a happy man. The trouble is that most of our nature legends do not have next generational replacements lined up, despite having inspired legions of us. We need more people doing exactly that, following up and expanding the pioneering work they did and still do. Addressing the challenges that the natural world faces at present, it is not going to require one or two people but swarms of motivated individuals.

I feel this movie explains a lot about us.

I love it. It’s omnipresent in history, from Egyptians to Aztecs, from Buddah to Monet. They are also it’s also one of the earliest lineages of flowering plants so that’s your bit of ‘scientific interest’ and they are simply beautiful. And quite philosophical: ‘As a lotus flower is born in water, grows in water and rises out of water to stand above it unsoiled, so I, born in the world, raised in the world having overcome the world, live unsoiled by the world’ (Hindu Prince Gautama Siddharta, the founder of Buddhism, 563-483 B.C.)

This place is half way between Seville and Edinburgh, at all levels, not only geographically speaking, but also culturally, as Spaniard living in the UK, it does define me quite well.