World's largest giant water lily discovered

Carlos Magdalena and Lucy Smith hold a copy of Bolivian Victoria. / rbg KEW

Science | Botany

Victoria Boliviana has been confused for years with the species Victoria amazónica

Elena Martin Lopez

Water lilies are among the oldest flowering plants in the world. Some of the most famous species are those of the genus Victoria, named after Queen Victoria of England in 1852. Until now, this genus was made up of two species of giant water lilies, Victoria amazónica and Victoria cruziana. However, after years of study, an article published today in the journal Frontiers in Plant Science, led by a team from the Royal Botanic Garden of Kew, in England, confirms the existence of a third species, Victoria boliviana. It is the first discovery of a giant water lily in more than a century, which is also positioned as the largest in the world.

Although this new species was discovered and drawn for the first time by the naturalist Tadeo Haenke in 1801, after the Spanish expedition of Malaspina, and some specimens have been deposited at Kew for more than 177 years, since it has not been scientifically described, it has been confused, for years, with the Victoria amazonica species. It was not until 2006 that Carlos Magdalena, a scientist and botanical horticulturist at Kew, suspected that something was wrong. “Ever since I first saw a photo of this plant on the internet, in 2006, I was convinced that it was a new species. It was clear to me that this one did not quite fit the description of any of the known Victorian species. Therefore, it had to be a third », he says.

He began to investigate and, in 2016, the Bolivian institutions Jardines La Rinconada and the Santa Cruz de La Sierra Botanical Garden donated a collection of giant water lily seeds of this presumed third species to Kew. When Magdalena germinated and cultivated the seeds, watching the water lilies grow alongside the other two Victoria species, she knew immediately that they were not the same.

three meters wide

At the same time, Lucy Smith, a member of Kew's team of botanical artists, was updating the illustrations of the two known species of Victoria, and when the first Victoria boliviana flowers opened, she too spotted unique differences which she described in her illustrations.

Illustrations of Bolivian Victory. /

Lucy Smith

For their part, two other Kew scientists, Natalia Przelomska and Oscar A. Pérez-Escobar, analyzed the DNA of the plant and found that it was genetically very different from the other two. The results suggest that Victoria boliviana is more closely related to the species Victoria cruziana, and that the two diverged about a million years ago.

In addition, the authors of the article compiled the existing information from historical records, horticulture and geography and compiled a database of the characteristics of the species. To do this, they used citizen science -through the iNaturalist platform and messages on social networks with tags on Victoria or giant water lilies-, herbarium specimens and living collections around the world.

Left: A Victoria Boliviana water lily flower on the day it bloomed at Kew. Right: The same flower on the second day after blooming. /

Lucy Smith

Bolivian Victoria features white flowers, which later turn pink, spiny petioles, and leaves that grow up to three meters wide in the wild. “Having these new data for the genus Victoria and identifying a new species is an incredible achievement in botany – properly identifying and documenting plant diversity is extremely important, because it brings together knowledge from many different disciplines – horticulture, science, and botanical art” , said Alex Monro, a taxonomist, systematician and field botanist at Kew. Scientists decided to name the new species in honor of fellow Bolivians and the home where this water lily grows in South America, the aquatic ecosystems of Llanos de Moxos.

The smallest water lily

Interestingly, Kew Gardens also grows 50 specimens of the world's smallest water lily (Nymphaea thermarum), which is extinct in the wild, but was saved from total extinction thanks to a conservation effort by Magdalena, who discovered how to propagate the plant in 2009.

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