Sav­ing the planet one plant at a time

The Daily Telegraph - Review - - Books -

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

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