"I was shown into a small greenhouse with thirty numbered plant samples.
I had to identify them all, sharing their genus species, family (if known), and common name."
On this day, in 2019, another fantastic book was published: The Plant Messiah by Carlos Magdalena.
This is one of my favorite books because it gives us a glimpse into what it's like to be a botanist searching for the world's rarest species.
And it's almost like getting a chance to shadow Carlos in his fascinating job with plants.
And I thought you would enjoy hearing this little excerpt where Carlos shares what taking one of his first exams was like at Kew.
This passage has stuck with me ever since the day I read it, and I'm sure it will also leave an impression on you.
First, I was given a plant identification test.
I was shown into a small greenhouse with thirty numbered plant samples. I had to identify them all, sharing their genus species, family (if known), and common name. Some were common garden plants, others less familiar. As I studied each plant carefully, I realized the common ones were the trickiest because you never use the family or Latin name.
I trusted my gut instinct and tried to stay calm — not easy when the result meant so much.
We moved on to a random plant on a bench, sitting next to a selection of cutting tools, many different sizes, and several options to encourage rooting, including a missed bench and a tray of compost.
“Can you propagate this plant?” one selection panel member asked.
“Sure!” I said, grabbing a knife. Immediately, the questioning started up again.
“Why the knife and not the scalpel or the secateurs?”
They wanted to know my thought processes, not just my knowledge of the plants. I kept things simple.
My feeling was that underplaying an answer was better than brashly responding as if I knew everything already.
"I am not sure. But I think it's because secateurs damaged the stem when you close the blades to make the cut,” I said. “You want a clean cut that slices through the tissue, like a surgeon's blade. Scalpels are fine for soft growth, so a knife is the right tool to use here.”
Finally, I faced the interview panel of senior staff members, including heads of departments and senior horticulturists; they sat behind a long bench and fired off questions.
“Look out the window. Can you see that tree? What is it?”
“It looks like a Pinus Wallinchiana.”
“Can you name the five species of pine?”
“Pinus nigra, Pinus pinea, Pinus this, Pinus that... “
My mentor throughout was Ian Leese, head of the school of horticulture.
Late one night, as he opened the door to the computer room to switch off the lights, he saw me.
“Oh, you still hear Carlos?"
"Buenas noches,” he said before heading off to collect his bike.
I stayed until 2:00 AM.
Then, at 6:00 AM, the ring of my mobile phone dragged me from my bed.
On the other end was a distressed fellow student who broke the news that Ian had died overnight.
I was stunned.
Any time I felt overwhelmed, Ian would say, “It is simple. Just keep going and you will achieve your goal.”
I often hear his voice in my head.