“Plant blindness” is the botanists’ term for the tendency of people to take plants for granted. Plant blindness is an epidemic, which leads to clear cutting forests and plowing over meadows everywhere. Many people are unaware that these ill-fated practices directly lead to our own destruction as a species.
Author Carlos Magdalena writes, “plants are the basis of everything, either directly or indirectly. Plants provide the air we breathe; plants that clothe us, heal us, and protect us; plants provide our shelter, our daily food, and our drink.”
He reports to the reader that, of the Earth’s 380,000 plant species, 33,120 species are known to be used by humans. Without plants “we would not survive. It is as simple as that.”
Magdalena explains he was dubbed “The Plant Messiah” by a Spanish journalist for his research “trying to save plants on the brink of extinction,” and his “post-biblical (though pre-hipster) beard and long hair.” His aim in life is to cure the epidemic of plant blindness and to rescue as many plant species as possible.
Rather than using this book to “preach” about his mission, Magdalena takes the reader on a whirlwind journey around the globe as he searches for nearly extinct plants. His first quest is for the café marron tree, considered extinct until a single plant is found on the Indian Ocean island of Rodrigues.
We learn that, before Magdalena gets to it, someone innocently chops it down. The botanist is shocked and grieves its loss. But when he returns to Rodrigues a few years later, he unexpectedly finds a few sprouts shooting up from the stump. The sprouts are taken to London’s Royal Botanic Garden where Magdalena painstakingly saves and propagates them. Twenty years later, half a dozen café marron trees produce “masses of flowers”. His itinerary for additional stops in his search for rare plants reported in this book includes Rwanda, Mauritius, Peru and Australia.
This is Magdalena’s debut book and it is an inspirational and suspenseful memoir of his botanical adventures and plant advocacy. He effectively alerts the reader to the dangers of “plant blindness”. The most gripping example of this global malady is the destruction of the Pacific yew, considered a trash tree by loggers for more than 100 years. But then its bark is discovered to have life-saving qualities that now are an essential component of the breast cancer drug Taxol.
The author concludes, “plants can’t speak, they can’t plead their cause, warn of the folly of their destruction or remind us of their importance.” The Plant Messiah has become their passionate voice.
Carlos Magdalena is a Senior Botanical Horticulturalist in the Tropical Nursery at the Royal Botanic Garden, Kew. Doubleday is the publisher of this 261-page book, which includes a folio of beautiful color photographs of rare plants.