Interview - Carlos Magdalena, Tropical senior horticulturist, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew

Following on from his success in propagating the world's smallest water lily - Nymphaea thermarum - Carlos Magdalena is determined to save as many plant species from extinction as he can.

Carlos Magdalena, Royal Botanic Gardens Kew  Image: HW
Carlos Magdalena, Royal Botanic Gardens Kew Image: HW

A firm believer in plant conservation, he came to England from Spain on an internship before being snapped up by Kew as a propagator and completing its diploma in 2006.

Despite being born into a green-fingered family, Magdalena was not always interested in plants. "I was always obsessed with nature and forms of life - my mother had flower shops and my father had garden centres - but I didn't pay much attention to plants when I was a kid. In Spain I didn't study horticulture - there was more of a focus on agriculture, but it was not my cup of tea, so I was working as a gardener."

He says gardening and horticulture have more kudos in Britain, something that led him here in 2001. "Gardening in this country is on a different level - it's like a national heritage. In many places a garden is seen as a labour, but here it's like, 'Oh, wow!' and there's some kind of press for it, and people from many different backgrounds do it."

His work in helping to save the world's smallest water lily, which was almost declared extinct by Bonn Botanic Gardens in Berlin, is an example of his tenacious approach. He explains: "I contacted them (Bonn) and they said it was almost impossible to propagate, which should have put me off, but on the other hand it was a challenge and they sent me some seeds.

"I tried lots of things, but they didn't work, so I did a huge trial where I tested everything but the concentration of gases in the water. I couldn't try that here very easily, but I thought that was the problem, so I focused on that and tried to grow them out of the water."

He adds: "It's crazy for a water lily. It's like putting a cactus in a pond - it doesn't make sense. But I tried it and now there's not one single problem with this plant. If you know how to grow something it becomes like a weed."

His breakthrough is significant for future scientific research, he explains: "Some scientists are looking into the evolution of plants by doing genome analysis. The water lily is one of the more ancient flowering plants and they are now looking into it because it's the ideal plant and it's possible that any gene this plant has is in any plant."

It also offers a commercial opportunity for its native Rwanda, where it is hoped the plant will be reintroduced next year. He says: "We cannot just go and sell it because that would be something Rwanda would have to give permission for, but they are quite keen on doing it, provided they get part of the benefit, which is fair enough."

Reluctant to accept praise for his work, Magdalena refuses to rest on his laurels. "It's a big breakthrough, but nothing when you when you put it in the context of the number of species out there - I think it's very exciting but there's still more to do."

On the impact of spending cuts to conservation, anticipated to be around 25 per cent at Kew, he remarks: "One of the hardest parts is sitting here knowing that so many species are going extinct. There are so many cuts, and the plants are not going to stop disappearing.

"It's a bit frustrating because I wish the point was that we cannot do it because of science, but at the moment that's not the case - it's funding cuts."

He says plant conservation tends to come second to animal conservation, despite more plant species facing extinction. "There's this thing for me which is a bit disappointing - if you are a plant you have to be very nice-looking to get a headline. We don't get the same priority as other items that are more appealing to more audiences."

On the future, he says: "At Kew, 50 per cent of funds come from the visitors, and visitors are not something you can take for granted. The worst case scenario would be the Government cutting our budget and us having fewer visitors. We just hope that it makes sense to at least keep things as they are."

CV

  • 1992-2003: Self-employed florist, landscape designer, gardener and wildlife consultant
  • 2003: Propagator, Royal Botanic Gardens (RGB), Kew
  • 2003-06: Diploma in Botanical Horticulture, RGB Kew
  • 2006 to date: Tropical senior horticulturist, RGB Kew

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