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World's Largest Waterlily Species Discovered at London's Kew Gardens

Despite surprising the western world, the plant was well known to the Amazon's indigenous people, who used it for food and medicine. It is world's largest giant waterlily, with leaves that can grow up to three metres in the wild. The striking lily has white to pink flowers and spiny petioles, the stalk that connects the leaf to the stem.

Shivam Dwivedi
World's Largest Waterlily Species at London's Kew Gardens
World's Largest Waterlily Species at London's Kew Gardens

A giant waterlily grown at Kew Gardens has been designated as new to science, marking the first discovery of its kind in over a century. Scientists at the south-west London garden had suspected for decades that a third species of giant waterlily existed, and they collaborated with researchers in Bolivia to see if their theory was correct.

Santa Cruz de la Sierra Botanic Garden and La Rinconada Gardens in Bolivia donated a collection of giant waterlily seeds from the suspected third species in 2016. These were germinated and grown at Kew in order to be grown alongside the other two species. Scientists also examined the DNA of the three plants and discovered that they were distinct.

The three species in the genus are named after Queen Victoria: Victoria amazonica, cruziana, and boliviana. According to the findings, which were published in the journal Frontiers in Plant Science, the new species is most closely related to Victoria cruziana and they diverged about a million years ago.

"In the face of a fast rate of biodiversity loss, describing new species is a task of fundamental importance," said Natalia Przelomska, a scientist at Kew who worked on the project. "We hope that our multidisciplinary framework might inspire other researchers who are seeking approaches to rapidly and robustly identify new species."

It is also the world's largest giant waterlily, with leaves that can grow up to three metres in the wild. The striking lily has white to pink flowers and spiny petioles, the stalk that connects the leaf to the stem. The current record for the largest plant of the species is held by La Rinconada Gardens in Bolivia, where leaves reached 3.2 metres. The species is naturally found in the aquatic ecosystems of Llanos de Moxos.

Specimens of this large aquatic plant have been stored in the Kew herbarium for 177 years and in the Bolivian national herbarium for 34 years, but it was widely assumed to be one of the other two species. Scientists named it Victoria boliviana after its South American home. We know very little about giant waterlilies because there are very few specimens of the original plants used to classify and name species in the Victorian era. This could be due to the difficulty of obtaining giant waterlilies in the wild.

Carlos Magdalena, a scientific and botanical research horticulturist at Kew, described the discovery as the most significant achievement of his 20-year career at Kew. "Ever since I first saw a picture of this plant online in 2006, I was convinced it was a new species," he continued. Horticulturists are intimately familiar with their plants, and we can often recognize them at a glance.

"It was obvious to me that this plant did not fit the description of either of the known Victoria species, so it had to be a third." For nearly two decades, I've been scouring the internet for images of wild Victoria waterlilies, a luxury that a botanist from the 18th, 19th, and most of the 20th centuries did not have."

Dr Stephan G Beck, professor emeritus at the National Herbarium of Bolivia, collected the specimen used to describe the new species in 1988, thinking it was Victoria cruziana.

"When the National Herbarium of Bolivia was founded in 1984, there were few scientific collections for Bolivia and many places to study, but I focused my interest on an area in the Llanos de Moxos," he explained. I had the opportunity to collect aquatic plants in flooded areas of the Yacuma River for several years and obviously yearned to see the Reina Victoria that locals told me about.

"However, it took me years to discover this magnificent plant." Finally, in March 1988, after sailing for over two hours up the Yacuma River looking for tributaries with several huge leaves and some flowers, I collected and preserved them in Bolivia's National Herbarium, which turned out to be a specimen of Victoria boliviana, now known as the Bolivian Victoria. now the type specimen. It was a great find and one I will always remember.”

Giant Waterlilies- Wonder of Victorian Age

The waterlily house at Kew Gardens was built in 1852 to house giant plants discovered by explorers in the Amazon basin. The giant waterlily Victoria amazonica drew crowds who marvelled at its massive circular leaves, which were strong enough to support a child's weight.

Botanists raced to present Queen Victoria with the first giant waterlily flower after Kew Gardens tried for a decade to cultivate the seeds. Six of these germinated successfully, with some being kept and the rest being sent to Syon House in London and Chatsworth House in Derbyshire. Despite surprising the western world, the plant was well known to the Amazon's indigenous people, who used it for food and medicine.

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