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The Plant Messiah: Adventures in Search of the World’s Rarest Species by Carlos Magdalena, Doubleday, US $26.95, Pp 262, April 2018, ISBN 978-0385543613

Carlos Magdalena is the Tropical Senior Botanical Horticulturist at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, but he is popularly known as Plant Messiah. He has a mission and his mission is to save the world’s rarest plants. He was first captivated by the flora of his native Spain but later he traveled to the remotest corners of the world to find and save the exotic plant species from man-made ecological destruction. In The Plant Messiah, Carlos Magdalena takes his readers from the Amazon to the jungles of Mauritius and then to deep within the Australian Outback in search of the rare and the vulnerable plant. Then he takes the readers to his lab as well where he shows how he develops groundbreaking techniques to rescue endangered plant species from extinction.

Magdalena says his mission is to make his readers aware of exactly how important plants are for humankind. The sad reality is that today one in five plants is now believed to be threatened with extinction. We may be blind to the fact but plants are the basis of everything, either directly or indirectly. Plants provide the air we breathe, plants clothe us, heal us, and protect us, plants provide our shelter, our daily food, and our drink. Magdalena writes, “Think medicines, building materials, paper, rubber for cars tires, and contraceptives, cotton for denim jeans and linen for dresses. Think bread, beans, tea, orange juice, beer, and wine. Think Coca-Cola. Then think about how cows eat grass, silage, or hay, supplying our meat and milk; how chickens eat wheat and seeds and give us eggs; how sheep eat grass and give us wool.”

In return for their generosity, we treat them very badly. Magdalena says that we don’t treat them like servants but like slaves. Their homes are destroyed and their families decimated. They are forced to mass-produce and are sprayed with chemicals. Factory farming is not just for animals but for plants also, and the environmental cost of this can be just as destructive — unsustainable palm oil development is just one sad example of this. People go hunting for plants, either with friends or by joining gardening groups, horticultural societies, natural science organizations, or conservation charities. Without them, we would not survive. It is as simple as that.

Magdalena says that there is always a plant that needs a little help or animal that would benefit from habitat management. From alpines and rare mosses to seagrasses, there are roof gardens to be constructed and sand dunes to be restored, and frogs waiting for you to provide a pond. There is always a way to enrich your environment and biodiversity. Magdalena suggests all of us join him in a worldwide effort to save the endangered plants. We can do this by joining local organizations such as the Wildlife Trusts, or we can support national charities like Plantlife or the Woodland Trust or become a friend of a botanic garden like Kew. Our aid can be financial or practical — local groups often rely on volunteers to maintain habitats. He argues that we won’t find another planet to move to. We have been given on Earth and we are not managing it properly. We don’t deserve another.

The Plant Messiah is the inspirational story of Carlos Magdalena who has taken upon himself to identify and save the endangered plant. Carlos Magdalena shows how important plants are to make and keep our planet livable. The Plant Messiah is full of passion and love for plants. It is amazing to follow Magdalena from one remote corner of the world to the other, from remote Australian billabongs where he found rare water lilies to the dry forests of western Peru, where he tried to save the last gnarled huarango trees growing in the shadow of the Andes to the jungles of Mauritius. What Carlos Magdalena and others like him have done is highly commendable and we should all try to follow in their footsteps. This is a book for those who love life.

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