Saving the planet one plant at a time
Magdalena “saves” shows his ambition and powerful sense of botanic intuition, which I imagine makes him something of a wild card in the august corridors of Kew. He’s a waterlily fanatic, and in 2009 heard of a newly discovered gem, Nymphaea thermarum – a lily so bijou the whole plant would fit in a teacup. Like many of the species covered in this book, the plant was all but extinct in the wild, reduced to a single colony in a rift valley in Rwanda. The oddity is that Nymphaea thermarum doesn’t occur in lakes or rivers; it grows in hot springs. “I need to grow this,” Magdalena broods.
From some botanic gardens in Germany he begs a few seeds, but has the same results with them as his donors had: the seeds would germinate underwater, but the shoots always died before reaching the surface. Then, “cooking tortellini” one evening and watching the bubbling water, it occurs to Magdalena that carbon dioxide is the missing factor. The growing shoots need supplies of this in the water (presumably supplied by the aeration of the springs in the wild) until they can form photosynthesising pads on the surface.
Once he’s solved this technical problem, Magdalena grows numbers of them and writes up his propagation technique as if it were a cooking recipe in a waterlily fanciers’ magazine. But this was only the beginning of the story, which develops into a kind of parable about endangeredness. In Rwanda, that last wild colony was starved to death when the locals dug a canal to extract a free supply of hot water. The seedlings in Germany were all eaten by rats. One of Magdalena’s seedlings – which were the last living specimens on the planet – was stolen from Kew by a collector.
Rarity is a glamorous quality, appealing to plant-lovers and illicit dealers alike. Yet, in a sense, it’s not just a few plant species that are scarce or restricted; it’s the vast majority. This is what evolution does so beautifully, developing organisms exquisitely tailored for just one set of environmental conditions (one quarter of all higher plants, 70,000 species, for instance, are confined to their native islands). That is why plant species are so vulnerable to the slightest change in circumstance, and this intricacy in the ecological relationships of plants on the edge is the subtext to Magdalena’s engaging account of his rescue missions, anywhere from Mauritius to South America.
The former has hundreds of critically endangered species and one that Magdalena concentrates on in his many expeditions to the island group is the woody liana Roussea simplex. His seeds and cuttings do well back at Kew, which is fortunate because the ecological web on which the plant depends in the wild is in tatters.
It is the only plant in the world that requires a lizard both for pollination and seed dispersal. The blue-tailed day gecko lives mostly in adjacent screw pines, munching insects. It drinks nectar from the waxy flowers of the liana while acting as an inadvertent pollinator, then comes back later for the jam-like, seed-rich fruit filling.
Both pines and Roussea are being devastated by deforestation, but the gecko, essential for both seed setting and dispersal, is also under attack. An ant species that was accidentally introduced from Australasia enjoys living and feeding in the flowers, and drives the gecko away when it comes to feed and pollinate. The complexity of ecological webs like this is one reason that attempts to conserve rare plants in situ can be so fraught: lose one element and the whole network collapses.
Extinction is an essential part of evolution by natural selection, and more than 99 per cent of all the species that have ever lived have vanished into oblivion. But the current wave isn’t part of this natural process. It’s a consequence of indiscriminate human attrition. Even conservationists can be part of this, and Magdalena tells of one Pacific island where visitors have to abstain from eating fruit or vegetables for a week before their arrival for fear of the alien seeds they may be smuggling in their guts.
Magdalena’s swashbuckling narrative of his adventures in the field and the propagation lab is a shade too high-pitched and human-centred at times, and I would have liked more on how plant species are doing it for themselves (he has a marvellous section on the continuing evolution of new forms and hybrids of Australian waterlilies). But his intimate and passionate engagement with the vegetal world shows how the unnecessary loss of any species is not just – or even principally – a loss of a potential human resource, but a tear in the awe-inspiring fabric of plant life that holds the biosphere together.
Richard Mabey enjoys the adventures of a maverick botanical conservationist Cooking tortellini, he realised that his ill seedlings lacked carbon dioxide
Good shepherd: Carlos Magdalena collecting waterlilies in Australia