Jobs They Love: Horticulturist
Updated: May 6, 2021
Lucky are they who look forward to Mondays with joy in their hearts! Meet the folks whose talents and passions are happily matched to the jobs they have.
Carlos Magdalena grew up in the 1970s in the little town of Gijón in Asturias, an area of dramatic Cantabrian cliffs and lush green valleys along the coast of northwestern Spain. His mother was a florist and avid gardener who first kindled his interest in the wonders of nature.
At the family’s cozy finca – weekend cottage in the mountains -- there were forests to explore and birds and small animals to observe up close, a large vegetable garden and even a pond in which the family grew waterlilies. It was here that the young Carlos first learned how to graft a fruit tree, an old orchard grower’s technique to get multiple varieties of fruit growing on the same tree. By the time he graduated high school, he was obsessed with growing things.
Educational and career opportunities in horticulture and conservation at that time were scarce in Spain. So after waiting tables in the local cafes and eventually running a successful coffee house of his own, at age 28, Magdalena transplanted himself to England to forge a new life in a new place, come what may. On a day tour of some of the sights of London, he made his first visit to Kew Gardens, the greatest and most beautiful botanical garden and research facility in the world. At once, he knew this is where he belonged.
Magdalena wrangled an internship at Kew and soon, based mostly on his practical experience with growing things and his naturally enthusiastic personality, was accepted into Kew’s rigorous and coveted three-year training program. After completing the course, he secured a job at Kew as a botanical horticulturist. It is here that Magdalena began to hone his astonishing expertise at rescuing some of the world’s most endangered plant species from extinction, including the tiniest known waterlily. His work eventually earned him the moniker, “The Plant Messiah,” which is also the title of his 2018 book.
Today, Magdalena is a Science and Horticulture assistant researcher at Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, specializing in tropical plants, plant propagation and plant conservation. He balances his work in Kew’s iconic Tropical Nursery, with international plant hunting assignments, public speaking, photography and media appearances on the topic of global plant conservation.
Did you have a childhood hero who inspired you?
There was this man by the name of Felix Rodriguez de La Fuente, mostly known by his incredible wildlife documentaries on TV. He was an amazing narrator who dwelled between poetry and philosophy often. He was also a scientist, a doctor, a visionary. A true 20th-century shaman. I could not put a name to “what he does.” but clearly I wanted to be and do what he did. I probably have failed to be as incredible as this man was, but at least I have succeeded at doing something which I’m passionate about, just like him.
What was it like to see Kew Gardens for the first time?
Quite like a kid in a candy store -- way too many interesting things! I did not even know where to focus my attention. Halfway through my first visit, I decided that one visit was not going to be enough and towards the end of that visit, I decided that Kew was my ideal “habitat.”
What is a typical workday like for you at Kew?
Lots of watering, lots of “checking on” plants. A few unexpected things -- good things -- happening here with the plants, and a few unexpected bad things there happening with the plants. Student coaching, answering queries, and a few projects to try to crack on. Some of this in different proportions happens every day. Then there are some ongoing projects, some odd tasks, media requests, science requests that may take more or less of your time during the week. It is a mix of routine and extraordinary items, and even some seasonality thrown in, despite the tropical nature of my job.
Why should we care about saving certain exotic plant species from going extinct?
The idea that we can have a functioning planet by only keeping what has a profitable value at a certain moment in time is delusional, unviable, and rather idiotic. The very reason why this planet contains life is because over millennia, an intricate web of organisms developed a very effective and stable system. From the oxygen we breath, the food and medicines we take, plants are clearly the most relevant organisms that we rely upon. They are also essentially dependent on climate regulation and CO2 intake. Each has its own unique genes, chemicals, strategies, and designs. Plants are the best palette of colors when painting solutions.
It is as much about saving the plants as about saving ourselves.
Is there one plant species on the brink of extinction right now that you know of that you most want to help save?
Hyophorbe amaricaulis, a palm with only one single specimen remaining on the island of Mauritius, comes to mind. It is an extinction waiting to happen and there is not much I can do at the moment, even when in theory, if many people worked together, I’m sure we could find a way. This is especially frustrating for me.
There is a popular subculture of “plant rescuers” these days -- people who buy dying plants from supermarkets or pull them out of trash bins to lovingly nurse them back to health at home. Do you find yourself doing this too?
If I did this, my home would be filled to the rooftop in no time! I can see the appeal to it, though. Having a plant to go from a bad state to full splendor is always fun. Some people may be put off because of a fear of not knowing what to do -- but finding out is the fun part! There’s nothing to lose and you will always learn something along the process. Plants with “a previous history” (how you got it or who gave it to you, etc.) also have a symbolic or emotional value. That too!