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    Ending Epidemics: A History of Escape from Contagion: “Ending Epidemics is an important book, deeply and lovingly researched, written with precision and elegance, a sweeping story of centuries of human battle with infectious disease. Conniff is a brilliant historian with a jeweler’s eye for detail. I think the book is a masterpiece.” Richard Preston, author of The Hot Zone and The Demon in the Freezer

    The Species Seekers:  Heroes, Fools, and the Mad Pursuit of Life on Earth by Richard Conniff is “a swashbuckling romp” that “brilliantly evokes that just-before Darwin era” (BBC Focus) and “an enduring story bursting at the seams with intriguing, fantastical and disturbing anecdotes” (New Scientist). “This beautifully written book has the verve of an adventure story” (Wall St. Journal)

    Swimming with Piranhas at Feeding Time by Richard Conniff  is “Hilariously informative…This book will remind you why you always wanted to be a naturalist.” (Outside magazine) “Field naturalist Conniff’s animal adventures … are so amusing and full color that they burst right off the page …  a quick and intensely pleasurable read.” (Seed magazine) “Conniff’s poetic accounts of giraffes drifting past like sail boats, and his feeble attempts to educate Vervet monkeys on the wonders of tissue paper will leave your heart and sides aching.  An excellent read.” (BBC Focus magazine)

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Plant Messiah Among the Living Dead

Posted by Richard Conniff on April 14, 2018

Magdalena and his beloved water lilies

by Richard Conniff/Wall Street Journal

Not long ago, while teaching a couple of college courses about the natural world, I plucked a random selection of tree leaves on my way into class and asked my students to identify them. These were Yale and Wesleyan students, all highly educated and aware of the world around them—and most of them could not even name oak leaves.

They were suffering from what botanists call “plant blindness”: the tendency to take plants for granted as the undifferentiated green backdrop to our lives. It’s an epidemic, compounded by our penchant for plowing down forests and meadows everywhere, oblivious that what we are destroying is ourselves.

Plant Messiah Cover
“Plants are the basis of everything, either directly or indirectly,” Carlos Magdalena writes in “The Plant Messiah.” “Plants provide the air we breathe; plants clothe us, heal us, and protect us. Plants provide our shelter, our daily food, and our drink.” He counts 31,128 plant species used by humans, and adds that without plants “we would not survive. It is as simple as that.”

Mr. Magdalena, a botanical horticulturalist at London’s Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew, writes that he got dubbed “the plant messiah” by a Spanish journalist, for his work “trying to save plants on the brink of extinction,” and also for his “post-biblical (but pre-hipster) beard and long hair.” Taking the name to heart, Mr. Magdalena writes that curing us of plant blindness is the miracle he would like to accomplish.

Thankfully, he does not do much sermonizing on behalf of this mission. Instead, he takes the reader on a lively account of his own transformation from bartender in Spain to Kew horticulturalist in training, clinging much too far up a chestnut-leaved oak in a windstorm, “trying to comfort myself by musing on the tracheids, ray cells, and lignin—which I had seen on the microscope slides—that ensure the trunk won’t snap.”

Mr. Magdalena soon makes a reputation for obsessively experimenting with the arcane sexual behaviors of plants that are the last of their kind and unable to reproduce on their own—the Lonesome Georges of the botanical world. His first case is the café marron tree, considered extinct until a solitary example turns up in 1979 beside a road on the Indian Ocean island of Rodrigues. Someone promptly chops it down, an appallingly common outcome in Mr. Magdalena’s stories. But a few branches re-sprout from the stump and get shipped off to intensive care at Kew.

By the time Mr. Magdalena arrives at Kew 20 years later, 10 café marron trees are producing “masses of flowers” year-round—without ever setting fruit. Scientists diagnose a mysterious blockage in the flowers that keeps the sperm cells in the pollen from reaching the ovule. They set the species aside as one of “the living dead.” But Mr. Magdalena balks. “Surely there had to be a way to make it produce seed,” he writes. Reasoning from his own allergies, and the way pollen begins to germinate in contact with the fluid in his eyes, he sets about operating on flowers with a scalpel, aiming to bypass the blockage and give pollen a place to germinate in the moist incision, en route to the ovule.

After several hundred attempts—and lots of flak from colleagues who think he should be using his time more productively—he gets a single fruit. Further heroic manipulations finally yield seeds, then seedlings, and ultimately restoration of the species on Rodrigues. Better still, he writes, the experience has helped the island’s forestry department move away from the sort of non-native ornamentals found everywhere in the tropics—hibiscus, heliconia, and the like—and instead focus on the species that make the island unique.

Mr. Magdalena dreams up the remedy for another recalcitrant species one evening at home while cooking tortellini. The world’s smallest water lily (Nymphaea thermarum) is native to a hot spring in Rwanda. A single plant also grows in a botanical garden in Bonn, but its seedlings always die. Mr. Magdalena obtains some seeds and, after multiple failed experiments, the bubbles in his pasta water finally inspire him to try filtering carbon dioxide through the floating mat in which seedlings grow. Figuring out what makes plants tick “is a bit like cooking,” he writes. “You have to have a recipe. It is not magic; it’s logic,” and it works.

Later, a visitor from the Bonn botanical garden stops by and is stunned to find more than 100 of these tiny water lilies flourishing at Kew. “A hundred!?” he cries. The water lily has gone extinct in the wild—“finished, expired, gone”—after local people dug a canal from the hot spring to use the water for washing. Worse, the visitor confesses, a rat has gotten into the greenhouse at Bonn and eaten the last surviving plant. “At the time of my tortellini moment,” Mr. Magdalena writes, “I had been playing with the last five seedlings on the planet.”

Mr. Magdalena tells his story well, and the cliffhangers aren’t just about the plants. Collecting specimens from an unexpectedly tall plant in Mauritius, he takes the top spot on a four-man human ladder. “The problem was that below us there was a 300-foot drop into the valley,” he writes. At the top, the Mauritius bulbul, a rare bird, makes a surprise appearance. “As I reached for my camera, the human ladder wobbled alarmingly.” In Australia, he wades neck deep to collect a water lily from what turns out, only by dumb luck, not to be crocodile habitat.

For anyone who might have considered plants dull stuff, Mr. Magdalena delivers a thrilling and inspirational account of adventures in the botanical world. At times, I found myself wishing for more detailed explanations of the importance of a particular species or how it fit into a larger habitat. A better account of our self-destructive tendency to prioritize economic interests over the survival of supposedly useless species would also have helped. The classic example of our shortsightedness is the Pacific yew, considered a trash tree by loggers for most of the 20th century. Then its bark became the basis for the lifesaving—and extraordinarily lucrative—breast-cancer drug Taxol.

Unfortunately, Mr. Magdalena writes, “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 becomes their voice instead, and his passion for his subject could just be enough to help the rest of us shed the scales from our plant-blind eyes.


Richard Conniff is the author of “The Species Seekers: Heroes, Fools, and the Mad Pursuit of Life on Earth,” and other books.



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