The Tree Whisperers

David Levene/Eyevine/Redux
Carlos Magdalena at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, 2014

During the excavation of Herod’s palace at Masada between 1963 and 1965, a pottery jar was unearthed that contained a great many seeds of the Judean date palm, which had been extinct for some eight hundred years. The jar had been buried sometime between 155 BC and 64 AD. In 2005, after spending forty years in the archaeological collections at Bar-Ilan University, three of the seeds were planted at Ketura in southern Israel. Eight weeks later, one sprouted, becoming the oldest seed to have germinated with human assistance and the only living example of this variety of palm. Methuselah, as it has been named, reached a height of nearly ten feet in 2015 and revealed that it was male when it started producing pollen. Similar seeds from other archaeological sites around the Dead Sea have since been coaxed to sprout, but unless a female can be raised to produce flowers for Methuselah to pollinate, which would then make viable seeds, the Judean date palm’s resurrection will have been short-lived.

Methuselah’s story is emblematic of the astonishing potential and the excruciating limitations faced by researchers trying to save the world’s rarest plants. Carlos Magdalena is at the forefront of these efforts, and his The Plant Messiah is a gripping account of both his successes and failures. Magdalena is a Spaniard who had very little formal horticultural training before being employed by the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew. But he was passionate about plants, and his persistence, and a green thumb fostered by his mother, have yielded incredible results. He is implacably opposed to giving up on a species, no matter how dire its circumstances: “I believe that every species has a right to live without justifying its existence.”

Magdalena made his reputation by saving the café marron, Ramosmannia rodriguesi. A pretty tree with dark-green leaves and white flowers that are borne year-round, it is found only on the island of Rodrigues in the Indian Ocean. First described in the nineteenth century, it was thought to be extinct. But in 1980 a boy collecting material for a school project found a single specimen growing beside a busy road. His teacher was unable to identify it, so sent a dried sample to Kew to see if experts there could help. After a complicated search, they finally identified it as the long-lost café marron.

Unluckily for the café marron, it is highly prized by Rodrigueans as a folk medicine, credited with the power to treat venereal disease and even banish hangovers. One day when conservationists visited the only known tree, all they found was a stump. A fence was built to protect it, and when that proved insufficient, another. But even this was not enough, so three branches were cut from the resprouted stump and sent to Kew to see…

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