Review: The Plant Messiah – Carlos Magdalena ****

With its neon green, floral cover and commanding The Plant Messiah title, I knew I had to pay the heartbreakingly expensive £20* just to read this book, whether I enjoyed it or not. So off I went, the poor biology student that I am, knowing that even if it were a tedious read, at least it would look good on the book shelf. And truly, I’m glad I did.

Carlos Magdalena, in a book that is part autobiography, part adventure story, has done a great thing: making plant science exciting to those who aren’t in love with it. The book kicks off with the botanical dilemma – one of many throughout the book – of how to make the café marron plant produce seeds. This tree, native to the Mauritian island of Rodrigues, was thought extinct until a surviving example was discovered in the 1970s. It took Magdalena’s discovery of a way to get female flowers on a male plant to get those seeds. Many of us hear about endangered animals in the news, but because endangered plants such as the café marron are less cute and fluffy, we seldom hear about them. This book, on the other hand, celebrates them.

As we read through Magdalena’s multiple attempts to recover specimens and seeds of endangered and thought to be extinct plants, we begin to realise how imperative his work and the work of global plant scientists is in preserving our understanding of the wider biological field.

As well as getting to learn about the work of such scientists, The Plant Messiah also tells us of one man’s route from relatively humble beginnings to becoming a renowned Kew Gardens horticulturist. His professional journey is mixed in with epic quests to find plants in far off places, always keeping the reader engaged. However, it would have been good to learn more about the less dramatic aspects of being a Kew Garden’s horticulturist – many of the research stories are exhilarating, but there must be gaps between these adventures that I’d have liked to have found out about.

There is also a multitude of scientific terms and Latin names of plants that can go over one’s head at some points, and had led me to have to re-read certain parts of the book. (The café marron, for example, is the Ramosmania rodriguesi, but does that help the story?) Luckily, there is a glossary at the back, explaining most of these terms.

Though Magdalena’s claim to be a ‘plant messiah’ may seem slightly arrogant, he does his best to justify such a claim, and by the end of the book I was more convinced that the label is fitting. His writing has created an awareness of a subject that is rarely talked about outside the boundaries of scientific journals. Each chapter builds upon the warning that we need to protect the Earth’s plants. So, go for it – read it and risk being pulled into the fascinating world of plants.

* The paperback is less than half this price [Ed.]

The Plant Messiah - Carlos Magdalena - Doubleday 2018

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