Carlos Magdalena, nicknamed the Messiah of plants, inspects the leaves of one specimen at Kew Gardens in London. / SUR

'We forget that plants give us oxygen and enable us to survive'

"In Spain you say you're a gardener and they think you sweep up the leaves in the park," he says about the lack of respect for his profession


What is a plant? Perhaps it is a helpless, immovable object, condemned to put up with the whims of people or animals. Or a decorative ornament, in most cases pretty enough to end up in a pot on a balcony like sardines in a tin. "No, no and no," says Carlos Magdalena, who manages Kew Gardens, one of the most famous botanic gardens in the world. He was recently the star guest at Planeta Verde, a series of virtual lectureswhich took place at the La Térmica cultural centre in Malaga. In this interview, the man nicknamed the messiah of plants, shares his vision for the future with us.

–You have long hair, you wear horn-rimmed glasses and people call you the messiah of plants. Forgive me, but I imagine you breakfasting on dandelions.

–Hahaha! Well, no, I prefer croissants, actually. I don't eat much greenery, to tell the truth. It must be because I see something of vegetable cannibalism in it.

"There are people who walk on the planet [with no respect] like someone who would tread on a corpse"

–When one thinks about the mysteries of the world, time and plants usually come to mind.

–It's very possible. Also, the two are related. I believe one of the reasons that we don't understand plants well is because they don't fit our timescale. You look at a plant and it doesn't do a thing. You look at it a week later, and it has grown a metre.

–The existence of a plant seems limited to a type of eternal sleep. What is it that fascinates you about them?

–I'm fascinated by the biological wealth they represent. How they are constantly modifying everything. The climate, the ground, the habitat, the rainfall pattern... and they do it very passively. So much so, that we barely notice it. A redwood seed, which is a tiny thing, about one millimetre, has a genetic software programme that is more than 3,000 years old, which is going to establish alliances with fungi that exist in the soil or with bacteria that extract nitrogen from the air. We see plants as a type of background, but in fact they are the centre of the universe.

–We can imagine the life of an animal, but what is the life of a plant like, as it has no muscles or nervous system?

–That's the thing. It is much easier to have empathy for a cow or a dolphin than for a plant. One of the amazing things about plants is how they analyse and process masses of data. The humidity of the air, the dampness of the ground, the temperature, the light...they have the ability to distinguish more frequencies of light than we can even see, and with that they proceed to make decisions. I'll become dormant, I'll start to flower or I'll grow more thorns because they want to eat me.

–Shouldn't we feel sorry for them? Always exposed to the whims or caprices of people or animals?

–When a flower gives sugar to a hummingbird, we see the bird as the star of the film. But if there were no hummingbirds for a year, the plant wouldn't have a problem. However, if there are no flowers for even 12 hours, the hummingbirds would die. The birds are enslaved, they have to find the flower. If there are no plants, we have to move somewhere else. They give us oxygen and enable us to live. It's curious how we ignore that.

–The philosopher Emanuelle Coccia called plants "the roots of the world".

–I would go along with that, in a way. The plants are the alchemists of the Earth. With a bit of water and light they are capable of generating everything else.

–So what do we do about anthropocentrism, the doctrine that places human beings as the centre of all things? Should it be invalidated?

–Of course it should be invalidated. That's the exact problem, the way we use the power we have as 'animals'. There are two types of people. The ones who are inside the planet, in other words, you consider yourself part of it. And those that are on the planet, with that attitude of 'it's all mine'. And they walk on it like someone [with no respect] who would tread on a corpse.

–A plant aspires to reach the sun, but it is rooted in the earth. That seems an obvious contradiction.

–Not at all. The plants use the sun to condition the soil and generate everything else. They generate proteins, amino acids, compounds, medicines... the plants act as a connection with all the forces of the universe.

–Are the roots the most important part?

–In a way, yes. When you see a timelapse of how the roots operate, it is quite creepy. It looks very animalistic, at root level.

–And in life? You are an Asturian in London.

–I think so, yes. It is the part that you don't have in your genetic code but that has moulded you as well. Let's say your race, your skin colour, your height... all that is given to you. Your cultural roots do the rest. The combination of the two is what generates you.

–Is that why some people, when they are transplanted, wither like a plant moved from one pot to another?

–Maybe so. But there is also the possibility of improving. You might have a sad plant, which is half-dried out, then you plant it in the ground and that's where its roots are able to spread and flourish.

–Can England be considered the Mecca of botany?

–It's possible. Kew Gardens has been internationally renowned for a great many years. The oceanic climate favours it a great deal. It is hot in summer, but only for a short time. There are frosts, but not for long periods. It rains a lot.

–Voltaire described gardening as the most noble profession in the world. Do you feel flattered by that?

–I'd say I feel acknowledged by it. After all, Voltaire is not a cheap philosopher.

–Is your profession more recognised in England?

–In England, when you say you are Spanish, people probably think your job is washing dishes. But when I tell them I'm a gardener, something clicks. They see you as an interesting person and open up to you. In Spain you tell someone you're a gardener and they think you sweep up the leaves in parks.

–In Malaga there are pine trees on the mountains and less than half an hour away there are avocado plantations.

–Yes. Malaga is definitely a hotspot of biodiversity.

–A final question. What music do you recommend we play for our plants on the balcony? Mozart, Nirvana or Daddy Yankee?

–Come as you are by Nirvana.