A giant water lily grown at Kew Gardens has been called new to science, in the first discovery of its kind in more than a century.
Scientists at the south-west London garden suspected for decades that there might be a third species of giant water lily, and worked with researchers in their native Bolivia to see if their theory was correct.
In 2016, the Bolivian institutions Santa Cruz de la Sierra Botanic Garden and La Rinconada Gardens donated a collection of giant water lily seeds of the suspected third species. These were germinated and grown at Kew so that they could be grown side-by-side with the other two species. Scientists also examined the DNA of the three plants and found that they were distinctly different.
The three species of the genus are Victoria amazonica, cruziana and Bolivia, named after Queen Victoria. The results, published in the journal Frontiers in Plant Science, suggest the new species is most closely related to victoria cruzianaand that they separated about a million years ago.
Natalia Przelomska, a Kew scientist who worked on the project, said: “With the rapid loss of biodiversity, characterizing new species is a vital task; We hope that our multidisciplinary framework could inspire other researchers looking for approaches to identify new species quickly and reliably.”
With leaves that grow up to three meters tall in the wild, it’s also the world’s largest giant water lily. The showy lily has flowers that change color from white to pink and bears spiny petioles, the stalk that attaches the leaf to the stem. Found naturally in the aquatic ecosystems of Llanos de Moxos, the current record for the largest plant of the species is held by La Rinconada Gardens in Bolivia, where the leaves reached 3.2 metres.
Specimens of this large aquatic plant have been in the Kew Herbarium for 177 years and in the National Herbarium of Bolivia for 34 years, but it was generally assumed to be one of the other two species.
Scientists named it Victoria Boliviana, in honor of his South American homeland. There is a gap in our knowledge of giant water lilies as there are very few specimens of the original plants used to classify and name species in the Victorian era. That could be because giant water lilies are difficult to collect in the wild.
Kew’s scientific and botanical research horticulturist Carlos Magdalena said the discovery was the greatest achievement of his 20-year career at Kew.
He added: “Since I first saw a picture of this plant online in 2006, I was convinced it was a new species. Gardeners know their plants well; we are often able to spot them at a glance.
“It was clear to me that this plant didn’t quite fit the description of the two known ones Victoria kind of and therefore it had to be a third one. For almost two decades I have been examining every single image of wild Victoria water lilies on the internet, a luxury that a botanist of the 18th, 19th and almost the 20th centuries did not have.”
The specimen from Bolivia used to describe the new species was obtained in 1988 by Dr. Stephan G. Beck, Professor Emeritus at the National Herbarium of Bolivia, who saw fit Victoria Cruziana.
He said: “When the National Herbarium of Bolivia was established in 1984, there were very few scientific collections for Bolivia and many study sites, but I focused my interest on an area in the Llanos de Moxos. For several years I had the opportunity to collect aquatic plants in flooded areas of the Yacuma River and obviously longed to see it Pure Victoria that the locals told me about.
“However, it took me years to find this massive plant. Finally, in March 1988, after sailing up the Yacuma River for over two hours looking for tributaries with several huge leaves and a few flowers, I collected them and kept them in the National Herbarium of Bolivia, which turned out to be a specimen Victoria Boliviana, now the type specimen. It was a great find that I will always remember.”
The plant can now be seen in the Princess of Wales’ Waterlily House and Conservatory at Kew Gardens. Kew is the only place in the world where you can see the three described species of Victoria side by side.
Giant water lilies – the wonder of the Victorian era
The Water Lily House at Kew Gardens opened in 1852 and was built to house the giant plants discovered by explorers in the Amazon Basin.
The giant water lily Victoria amazonica drew crowds to marvel at its huge round leaves, strong enough to support a child’s weight.
There was a race among botanists to deliver the first giant water lily flower to Queen Victoria after a decade of trying to cultivate the seeds at Kew Gardens. Six of these were successfully germinated, some kept and the rest sent to Syon House in London and Chatsworth House in Derbyshire.
Although the western world was amazed, the plant was well known to the native peoples of the Amazon who used it as food and medicine.