New water lily species discovered at Kew Gardens

Image above: measuring Kew’s Victoria boliviana; photograph RBG Kew

First discovery of a new giant water lily in over a century

A giant water lily grown at Kew Gardens has been has been discovered to be a new species, in the first such discovery in more than a century.

Scientists have known about two species: Victoria amazonica and Victoria cruziananamed after Queen Victoria, and have long suspected there was a third.

In a collaboration with scientists in Bolivia, where the giant water lilies originate, they germinated seeds of the suspected third species at Kew. When analysed, their DNA was found to be different from the other two species.

They named the plant Victoria boliviana, in honour of its South American origins. They then found that they had specimens of this third species sitting in the herbarium at Kew already. The plant has been at Kew for 177 years but had been mistaken for one of the other species.

Victoria boliviana has striking flowers which turn from white to pink and in the wild its leaves grow up to three metres across.

Not only is this the first discovery of a new giant water lily in over a century, but Victoria boliviana is now officially recognised as the largest water lily in the world. The current record for the largest plant of the species is held by La Rinconada Gardens, one of the Bolivian institutions which sent Kew seeds. Their plant grew to 3.2 metres.

Image above: Kew Gardens; photograph Emma Martin

Discovering a new species of “fundamental importance”

Kew’s scientific and botanical research horticulturist Carlos Magdalena said the discovery is the biggest 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. Horticulturists know their plants closely; we are often able to recognise them at a glimpse.

“It was clear to me that this plant did not quite fit the description of either of the known Victoria species and therefore it had to be a third. For almost two decades, I have been scrutinising every single picture of wild Victoria water lilies over the internet, a luxury that a botanist from the 18th, 19th and most of the 20th century didn’t have.”

Natalia Przelomska, another scientist at Kew who worked on the project, said the discovery was of fundamental importance:

“In the face of a fast rate of biodiversity loss, describing new species is a task of fundamental importance; we hope that our multidisciplinary framework might inspire other researchers who are seeking approaches to rapidly and robustly identify new species.”

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