The Many Faces of
Carlos Magdalena
Kew Diplomate Horticulture, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew

by Carlos Magdalena
Images by Andy McRob, Official Photographer of RBG Kew,
Dan Leighton and Noelene Pullen
Click to enlarge
- Specific credits with large images

I was born in 1972, in Gijon, Asturias, Spain. Once I say Spain, most readers will make up their minds in seconds and say, "Oh, somebody from a dry, sunny and Mediterranean location ..." Wrong. I come from a misty, moist, wet, damp, cold, cloudy, mossy, Atlantic piece of land.

Not very well known, Asturias is a very unusual and yet-to-be discovered part of Europe. A range of mountains with many peaks rising to 2,600 m (8,530 ft) above sea level, 6 to 40 km (4 to 25 miles) away from the northwest Atlantic, makes this area of Spain one of the rainiest places in Europe. It may seem irrelevant, but this combination of mountain, sea and rain has created some of the greatest natural spaces in Europe, and, almost certainly, the best preserved in the European West Atlantic. To support this, I just would add that it holds the largest patch of primary deciduous forest, the last viable population of brown bear and the largest of wolf in Western Europe. Other biological jewels in the crown include the highest densities of otter, boar and chamois on the continent, the world's only capercaillie that lives in a deciduous forest, and probably the largest and healthiest population of wild salmon in South Europe. (Does it sound typically Spanish?)

Floristically it's quite remarkable too, holding numerous endemic species. Due to the mountain range, it is often the south limit for some species (high in the mountains), and the north limit for Mediterranean ones (down near the coast on south facing slopes). As an example, and due to the nature of this website, I will mention Nuphar pumilla, which still grows (I hope) in a small pond, about 3 to 4 m (10 to 13 ft) wide in a bog at 2000 m (6562 feet) high in very acidic waters. This case is quite remarkable, as this small pond is its only location for the whole of the Iberian Peninsula. In fact, the nearest place to find this taxon would be the Swiss Alps or the Scandinavian countries.  

It may be just me, but this fact amazed me as I came across it when I was still a child. I thought it was incredible that something would have survived from the last ice age in such a tiny environment; which in fact is a bog that is almost totally full by decantation. The last second in the clock of a species that will be wiped out as the life span of a pond ends and the temperature climbs up the hill … I guess that the mix of botanical/scientific facts, combined with the desperate situation and the romantic/poetic allure created from the view of this survivor still flowering in a post-glacial pond on the top of a hill, was what created my amazement.

Despite this wilderness, some parts of Asturias are amongst the more contaminated and industrialised in Europe too, so there were (and there are) other sides of the coin right on my doorstep. You can be in a totally post industrial hi-tech city and minutes later (less than and hour) you can be in a no-road, no-house-in-sight, no coverage and an "I-can-hear-the wolves-getting-closer" kind of location.

Now that I have briefly described the landscape where I was brought up, I need to describe my familiar environment. My grandfathers were farmers in a little (29 people) village in the mountains. They, as many other farmers in the area, were amazing in that they were 100% self-sufficient at a moment when the word self-sufficient did not exist yet or was still being baked. I was shown by my grandfathers, uncles and parents how to air-layer a lemon tree, graft an apple tree, harvest sweet corn, beans, tomatoes and any other usual crop that you can think of. They even taught me other activities such as making a jumper, from sheep to wearing, making butter, jam, cider and so on. It didn't seem unusual to me at the time, but now, living in London in 2007, I have the feeling of travelling back in time 800 years for the weekend and coming back

However, I was brought up in a larger and industrial town, Gijon (300,000 inhabitants). I spent most of my life there, but I regularly escaped from the urban environment in different ways. My mother used to own two flower shops, so I guess that I was given my first baby fruit somewhere between my mother, a pile of flower arrangement waste, and the flower arrangements in it (a no-go zone). There, before I could even speak, I sowed the seeds of the first bromeliad, the first aroid, the first cactus (but I cannot remember when that was …).

My father was a sales representative. So you may think that he did not have much to do with rural landscapes, flora and nature. Wrong. He represented companies whose main clients were garden centres, as they manufactured pots, garden sculptures, hard landscape materials or imported plants from Holland, etc.

Due to these facts, I was totally surrounded by plant-growing environments Monday to Friday and Friday to Monday. I had millions of plants at home or at my mother's shop during the weekdays and then went for the weekends and summers to either my grandfather's village or to my father's orchard. This was a huge piece of land that my father bought when I was about four years old. It cost him peanuts as most of it was a huge peat bog and that wasn't fashionable those days in Spain. After draining it, and adding things such as manure, sand and other compounds, we achieved two different things: first the destruction of a really rare habitat, and second an amazing soil in which during subsequent years more that 3000 fruit trees and about 3000 ornamentals were planted.

In the pond 
The fruit trees were due to my mother not wanting to eat commercial crops with pesticides and other chemicals (at a time when "organic" was already invented in Europe, but had not been translated to Spanish yet). The ornamentals were grown mainly for two reasons: a) for leaf or flower production to be used in the shop (all those that you could not buy in the commercial market but still you want to use …); b) for the sake of it. There I managed my first pond. It was a "natural" lake created with the aid of a JCB machine. It was bare at the beginning, but in subsequent years I introduced goldfish, koi carp, Nymphaeas, Nelumbos and some other species. The huge pond was conceived as a water reservoir for the irrigation system, but my combination of plants and fish ended up clogging the place in less than ten years by decantation. It was very didactic, but I'm not sure if my parents found my learning experience so appealing.  

During all my childhood (and up to the present day) I was fascinated by every single aspect of the natural world. Psychologists say that every child has an early development stage where it is very interested in animals and forms of life. I guess that I never overcame that stage (I may even need therapy!). I drove my family crazy by filling the house with pets, and making my room into a natural history museum. Then a ban on feathery/furry family members took place and I was allowed just to have aquariums. It was a really wrong decision; first, the ban came too late. I had too many birds, so an aviary was built up in my parents' orchard to house them which I thought was great! Now I could have ducks, geese, quails, pigeons! (Started with a pair, ended up with more than 300 ...) Second, the "just aquariums" policy led to an uncontrolled proliferation of tanks that ended up converting my room and other locations into a fish breeding factory. I wound up having any species that were available from the local markets.

Next I became hooked on bird watching and I loved it! Nobody understood me. In those days, in Spain, no one was doing it and there wasn't a popular word that described the activity. So if I said, "I'm going to go to this lake, mountain or beach to look at the birds," nearly everyone thought I was crazy or would ask why and where was the fun in doing so.

I started working, as a gardener or in my parents businesses. Later on I worked installing aquariums, ornamental ones at offices and public places. Others were in restaurants, to be used as a way of keeping seafood alive, which is quite typical in the gastronomy of this area of Spain. Due to my early knowledge of the natural spaces and species, occasionally I worked for the government researching the status and location of endangered species, such as capercaillie, oystercachter, chamois and others. I loved that "field research" work, but it was very unreliable, as you get employment for a month doing a project, then nothing for six months and then another project for maybe two months. You could not do this as a permanent job and I needed to alternate it with gardening and the aquarium business.

Unfortunately, as I was approaching my 20s, both grandfathers died, and neither of my parents lived on the farm, so it got left behind. Then when I was about 25, my father died too and my mother retired. Somehow I felt like a stage in my life was closing and I started wondering about the possibility of working abroad for a while.

Because it was spring and also that 2001 was a beautiful year to start a "space odyssey", I moved north to the UK. In May 2001 I landed in London with the aim of improving my English and staying there for six months. I was offered a job as sommelier in a four-star hotel located in a huge English historic garden. I thought it would be fun and a perfect way to improve my English. They were quite impressed with my sommelier skills (having a Spanish or French accent is a plus!), and after all, if you talk about wine, you talk about horticulture: Such variety of grape, that is harvested in this or the other way, after being grown in a chalky soils and fermented barrels of a certain tree species, the bottle being topped with a cork from Quercus suber, that is harvested after five years….it really made me learn a lot of the horticultural jargon! I was going to go home in October 2001 after spending the summer in London. Somehow, by the time September kicked in, I was working as gardener at the same hotel, and making flower arrangements! It did not take long until I was on the green side of the force! 

If somebody like me visits London, there is something that you cannot miss: Kew Gardens. I took the tube one day and visited the wondrous Kew. I really was not aware that that day was going to change my life for a long time. After spending a few hours in the garden, I decided that I was going to work there whatever it took. I found out that you could do three months internships in the different units/sections of the gardens. I applied for a position in the Tropical Nursery, a behind-the-scenes enormous glass house that holds a very impressive collection of plants. I started there one winter, looking after the glasshouse that holds about 700 accessions of aroids. And there was a problem, a serious one: I loved it! 

My three months internship was finishing and I really wanted more, so I applied for a temporary position as propagator, and a few days later for a position in the prestigious Kew Diploma in Botanical Horticulture. I went to both work interviews. The Kew Diploma one was tough. It lasted almost a whole day: interviews with an intimidating panel (four people from different departments bombarding you with questions of all sorts), practical exams, etc. After a few days I got the news: I got both, the temporary position, so I could just carry on after my internship; and the Kew Diploma too, which started two days after I finished my temporary contract. I had read about the Kew Diploma in a Spanish gardening encyclopedia when I was 11 years old and the last thing I was thinking when I read it was that I would end up joining it when I was 29. Life and its spins …

Propagating Anecphya 
The position as propagator was a very good warm-up exercise for the Kew Diploma and I really enjoyed it, so much that I did not want to stop it. It was very successful too, as I managed to propagate for the first time some critically endangered species and improve the way some other difficult subjects were cultivated or propagated. Then the Kew Diploma started, and with it my life became a horticultural whirlwind.


In the nursery with
<< Nelumbo, < N. violacea and ^ V. 'Adventure'

The course is three years long; you alternate practical work with lecture blocks. Every year, you work nine months full time and undergo three months of very intense lectures. The lectures are extremely varied, from systematics to landscape design, from genetics to land surveying, ecology, environmental control systems, an endless list of topics. The work placements change every three months and are even more varied. You don't know where you are going to end up until one or two weeks before you start doing it. You may find yourself with all the tree surgeon gear at 30 m (295 ft) above the ground with your life hanging from a security rope. Or may you find yourself in a lab micro-propagating God knows what. Or may you find yourself digging at -5C (23F) or studying the flora of the beach at Seychelles.

In my case, I worked with the collection of orchids, marine display (yes, we have an aquarium, in the basement of the Palm House), the temperate nursery, the Princess of Wales Conservatory, the Rock Garden, the Alpine House and its nursery, the Dukes Garden (you need to be a beekeeper in a traditional English garden), the conservation area (Kew Nature Reserve), the Tree Gang (fantastic views, unless you look down) and the Mediterranean Garden. As well I got to travel quite a lot, to several locations in the UK, and some abroad: Germany, southern Spain and the Republic of Mauritius. As well, every year you have about 50 plant identification tests: you are shown a list of 30 to 50 plant species. A week later you go to a test with 30 flower pots with a twig, a flower or seed of a plant, and somehow you need to say genus, species, family and distribution of the species. A mistake in the spelling? You have lost a mark! Some, like grass or bamboo identification, are really difficult and somehow you have to get it right.

So you have been typing all weekend, you have spent the whole day hanging from a tree and once you finish you've got to go to a plant identification test, but rushing because you have a lecture afterwards and from it you need to run home because you may have an exam the following day. Alternatively, you may have to hand in a 5000 word project on the systematics of the Pandanaceae of Madagascar or just pack up because you are flying all the way down to south-and-sunny Spain for three weeks (the later happened just once, unfortunately …)

< Up a tree in Mautitius

To define it more briefly, the Kew Diploma is an academic and practical horticultural marathon. If half way into the course you don't hate everything green and think of setting up an herbicide factory, it really means that you are enthusiastic about the subject and you should seek medical advice. I love it, but I'm still trying to find a professional to help me to give up the habit (however, I wasn't that enthusiastic when I lost two nights sleep and found myself still typing at 4 am in the School of Horticulture …).

Most of the graduated students obtain very financially rewarding jobs several weeks before they even finish. However, I could not face leaving my plants behind to end up in the studio of a trendy and illuminated landscape designer. Once I graduated I applied for a permanent position at the Tropical Nursery and, as you may guess, my application was successful and that is my current work. The huge Tropical Nursery is a glasshouse, divided into 21 individual glasshouses that can be independently programmed to suit the cultural conditions of the particular plant species growing in it. As I'm typing, I have requested the database to come up with the quantity of accessions located in this nursery, and I'm shocked with the answer: 17,732 accessions (I'm not sure if I will sleep tonight after this …). An accession could be anything from a batch of seedlings to the very last specimen of a species to a highly invasive weed.  

With Amorphophallus titanum
The nursery is divided in four main sections: Orchids (about 4.000), Cacti and Succulents (dry tropics), Moist (bromeliads, aroids, general tropical herbaceous and tropical woody collections, aquatics, tropical carnivorous, tropical propagation, tropical and temperate ferns …), and Temperate. I work in the Moist unit, but am more directly involved with the tropical woody and herbaceous, the aquatics and the tropical propagation, which deals with all the propagation of my unit plus propagation requests from the public glasshouses, other botanic gardens, etc. 
The collection is amazing. It contains several endangered species and many natural source specimens. I deal with collections such as Gesneriaceae, Acanthaceae, Piperaceae, Rubiaceae, Nymphaceae, Maranthaceae, Passifloraceae, and tropical crops. Part of my work involves training students and trainees, giving tours and demonstrations to visitors, etc. Believe me, there is no way to get bored; there is always something to do. During the last year I have been involved in some projects abroad, such as the repatriation of endangered species to the Republic of Mauritius and securing ex-situ some critical endangered species by importing them from Mauritius. We are trying to improve the aquatic collections and to research the ways in which we can best display this group of plants, as well as trying to expand the Victoria season in the UK. 

Read more about Carlos Magdalena in
WGI ONLINE Journal 2-3
Cover Story: Carlos Magdalena Revitalizes the Aquatics Collection at RBG Kew

Also in the issue
The Mauritius Report
A detailed account of this extraordinary repatriation project
Dan Leighton Looks After Kew's Water Lily House
What he does, how he does it and how he explains it to Kew's guests

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