Kew Gardens botanists discover world's largest waterlily is new species

·2-min read
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Researchers at London's Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew have discovered the largest waterlily in the world.

The new botanical discovery is in the genus Victoria, the famous giant waterlily genus named after Britain's Queen Victoria in 1852. Until now, there have only been two known species of giant waterlily; the new species makes it three.

Specimens of the new species, Victoria boliviana, have been sitting in Kew's Herbarium for 177 years and in the National Herbarium of Bolivia for 34 years. During this time, it was commonly believed to be Victoria amazonica.

However, after years of investigation, a team led by Kew's scientific and botanical research horticulturist Carlos Magdalena, freelance Kew botanical artist Lucy Smith, and biodiversity genomics researcher Natalia Przelomska, alongside partners from the National Herbarium of Bolivia, Santa Cruz de La Sierra Botanic Garden and La Rinconada Gardens, has finally been able to confirm it as a new scientific species.

With flowers that turn from white to pink and bearing spiny petioles, V. boliviana is now the largest waterlily in the world, with leaves growing as wide as three metres in the wild. After suspecting for years there was a third species in the Victoria genus, Magdalena, a world expert on waterlilies, began making enquiries to gardens in Bolivia. In 2016, Bolivian institutions Santa Cruz de La Sierra Botanic Garden and La Rinconada Gardens donated a collection of giant waterlily seeds from the suspected third species.

He then germinated and grew the seeds back at Kew, and while watching the waterlily grow side-by-side with the other two Victoria species, he knew immediately something was different. In 2019, he visited Bolivia to check out the waterlily for himself in the wild and was amazed.

"Ever since I first saw a picture of this plant online in 2006, I was convinced it was a new species," he explained. "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."

The new giant waterlily can now be seen in the Waterlily House and the Princess of Wales Conservatory at Kew Gardens.