Kew’s ‘codebreaker’ mourns his lily

Carlos Magdalena, holding the Nymphaea thermarum water lily, surrounded by  its giant relative, Victoria amazonica. (Photo: Getty)
Carlos Magdalena, holding the Nymphaea thermarum water lily, surrounded by its giant relative, Victoria amazonica. (Photo: Getty)

Carlos Magdalena ‘has done things no one else can do’ but a thief has put at risk his work to save a tiny, rare plant. Tom Chivers reports

In a little warm puddle in rural Rwanda, a tiny flower used to grow; a water lily, barely half an inch across. It was discovered in 1985 by Eberhard Fischer, a German botanist, and it lived only in this one hot volcanic spring, in a place called Mashyuza.

It had survived there for perhaps millions of years, possibly since the whole area was a giant lake. But, in 2008, the hot spring where the wild flower lived was diverted to provide water for a local laundry. Immediately, an entire species was obliterated.

Or almost obliterated. Fischer had brought a few specimens home with him, to the botanical garden in Bonn where he worked. He was able to keep them alive, reasonably happily. But no one was able to work out how to make them flower, to make them reproduce. The tiny lily appeared to be doomed.

Fischer and his colleagues tried everything they knew, and asked for help from around the world. But nothing worked — until 2010, when a horticulturalist at Kew Gardens, in west London, finally solved a puzzle that had beaten a generation of fellow botanists, and grew the “thermal water lily”, Nymphaea thermarum, once more. It’s still perilously rare, but a few specimens live. Now, someone has stolen one.

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The man who resurrected the Nymphaea was Carlos Magdalena, a Spanish-born plant-grower whose colleagues describe him as a “codebreaker”.

“He has been able to do things that no one else can do,” says Richard Barley, the director of horticulture at Kew. “We have some very skilful and knowledgeable people here. It is their paid profession, but it is also usually their passion, so they go the extra mile, they work out the special way of doing something; they care for the plants like family members. Carlos is a classic example.”

Normally, water lilies are pretty straightforward to grow. They live in relatively deep water; their seeds sink, eventually, to the bottom of the lake or pond and grow from there to a few inches below the surface, sending a leaf all the way to the top.

“But this was a very odd water lily,” says Magdalena. “We tried the normal stuff, but it just wouldn’t work. It would germinate, but then it would get weaker and weaker and die without flowering.”

Magdalena and his colleagues tried changing everything: temperatures, composts, water acidity, nutrients, light levels: “We knew it had to be something.” Eventually, he had a breakthrough: the one thing that was different about this plant was that it grew in a spring, not a pond; its water levels dropped and rose, depending on how much water was coming out.

Unlike most water lilies, it was sometimes exposed to the air — and to carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide doesn’t dissolve as well in water as it does in air, so growing it in water meant it was starved of the carbon it needed to grow. “It’s quite complex getting carbon dioxide in water. But then I realised that, if Mohammed doesn’t go to the mountain, the mountain must go to Mohammed. So instead of putting the carbon dioxide in the water, I exposed the plant to the air.

“So when the plant was two millimetres tall, I put it in one millimetre of water, so that it keeps really moist, but it still has contact with the air. And within two or three months, it flowered.”

Nymphaea thermarum is small, but it is beautiful. And beautiful, rare things are covetable. “With any rare objects around the world, be that plants, animals or art objects or what have you, there are dishonest people who would seek to have access to and to have the item,” Barley says.

Magdalena is more specific: “There are amateur growers who are totally obsessed with cultivating these rare plants. They will go to incredible lengths to get them – pay huge amounts of money, or put themselves at risk by going to dangerous locations in dodgy countries, or just steal them. And, of course, there are people who might hire someone to do it.”

On one level, the fact that the thief will probably be knowledgeable about the plant might be considered a good thing. “The stolen plant could survive,” Magdalena says. “These people will have read the articles about how to cultivate it: I’ve written up how to propagate it, because if I get hit by a train and I’m the only person who knows how, that’s not good. So the thief could provide the right conditions.”

But, in fact, from the species’ point of view, that might not be entirely helpful. “The problem is not really the value of this specimen as a living individual,” Magdalena says. “We have lots – about 100. Now that we know how to grow it, it’s not difficult. It’s more about the value of the plant as a biological resource.”

Kew Gardens and other major botanical centres are signed up to an agreement called the Convention on Biological Diversity.

Nymphaea thermarum, the smallest waterlily in the world
Nymphaea thermarum, the smallest waterlily in the world. (Photo: PA)

“It’s a very cute little plant, and there are many growers who’d love to have one at home. That means that there will always be a market for it. If we were going to commercialise this, or make a scientific discovery, we’d be required to share the proceeds with the country of origin, and perhaps help with restoring the wild location of the plant.”

A plant thief, though, is unlikely to have signed any international agreements; they’d be happy to sell it on illegally and deprive conservationists in the country of origin of money that could go towards bringing back the plant in the wild.

The Metropolitan Police has appealed for witnesses but it has no specialist division; the investigation is in the hands of the local Richmond CID.

In some ways, it is easier to conserve plants than animals, because you can store their genetic material indefinitely as seeds. “But the disadvantage plants have, in the conservation battle, is that animals often have fur and appealing eyes,” Barley says. “People sometimes find plants a little harder to love.” That’s less the case with spectacular flowering plants, he says — he sounds almost dismissive of the attention that “showy” orchids get — but smaller, or less beautiful, plants struggle to get noticed.

And Magdalena is keen not to focus too hard on Nymphaea thermarum. “I’m pleased to have solved the problem — if I’d failed, I would have felt awful — and in a way it’s an important plant for me.

“But the problem of conservation is so big, so really it’s just one problem out of 100 million. There’s no time for complacency; on Mauritius alone, in the Indian Ocean, there are 275 species of plants which are critically endangered. There are about 75 of which there are fewer than 10 specimens. And there are several of which there is only one specimen.”

Magdalena was instrumental in saving the café marron, Ramosmania rodriguesii, of which only one known example survived in the wild, on the Mauritian island of Rodrigues – he successfully managed to induce it to flower and breed.

Funnily enough, in Rwanda, Nymphaea thermarum has made an attempt to revive itself. The laundry that killed it closed down after a couple of years and a local sweet potato farmer diverted some of the water that had flowed into it to grow his crops.

Even though the lilies were all dead – and there were none in any of the dozens of other hot springs in the Rift Valley (Fischer had checked) — some seeds had survived in the mud a few hundred yards below the original pool and the warm water had allowed them to germinate.

It’s a precarious life, relying on the vagaries of the Rwandan sweet potato market. But the lily is back in the valley.

More by Tom Chivers

• It’s just a storm, not global warming
• When drug companies don’t publish trials, people die
• Can we drop the Today programme ‘guest editors’?

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