A giant waterlily grown at Kew Gardens has been named as new to science, in the first discovery of its type in more than a century.
Scientists at the south-west London garden suspected for decades there could be a third species of giant waterlily and worked with researchers in its native home in Bolivia to see if their thesis was correct.
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. These were germinated and grown at Kew, so it could be grown side-by-side with the other two species. Scientists also studied the DNA of the three plants, and found they were distinctly different.
The three species in the genus are Victoria amazonica, cruziana and boliviana, named after Queen Victoria. The results, published in the journal Frontiers in Plant Science, suggest that the new species is most closely related to Victoria cruziana, and that they diverged about a million years ago.
Natalia Przelomska, a scientist at Kew who worked on the project, said: “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.”
Carlos Magdalena said the discovery of the third species was the biggest achievement of his 20-year career at Kew. Photograph: Ines Stuart-Davidson/Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew
With leaves growing up to three metres in the wild, it is also the largest giant waterlily on the planet. The striking lily has flowers which turn from white to pink, and bears spiny petioles, the stalk which attaches the leaf to the stem. Naturally found 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 leaves reached 3.2 metres.
Specimens of this large aquatic plant have been sitting in the herbarium at Kew for 177 years, and in the national herbarium of Bolivia for 34 years, but it was commonly thought to be one of the other two species.
Scientists have named it Victoria boliviana, in honour of its South American home. There is a gap in our knowledge of giant waterlilies as there are very few specimens of the original plants used to classify and name species in the Victorian era. This could be because giant waterlilies are difficult to collect from the wild.
Kew’s scientific and botanical research horticulturist Carlos Magdalena said the discovery is the biggest achievement of his 20-year career at Kew.
He added: “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 waterlilies over the internet, a luxury that a botanist from the 18th, 19th and most of the 20th century didn’t have.”
The specimen from Bolivia used to describe the new species was collected in 1988 by Dr Stephan G Beck, professor emeritus at the National Herbarium of Bolivia, who thought it was Victoria cruziana.
Scientists have named the plant Victoria boliviana, in honour of its South American home. Photograph: Ines Stuart-Davidson/Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew
He said: “When the National Herbarium of Bolivia was born in 1984, there were very few scientific collections for Bolivia and many places to study, 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 the Reina Victoria which the locals told me about.
“However, it took me years to find this tremendous plant. Finally, in March 1988 after sailing over two hours up the Yacuma River looking for tributaries with several huge leaves and some flowers, I collected and preserved them in the National Herbarium of Bolivia, which turned out to be a specimen of Victoria boliviana, now the type specimen. It was a great find and one I will always remember.”
The plant can be seen now in the waterlily house and at the Princess of Wales conservatory at Kew Gardens. Kew is the only place in the world where you can see the three described species of Victoria together side by side.
Giant waterlilies – the wonder of the Victorian age
The waterlily house at Kew Gardens opened in 1852 and was built to house the giant plants discovered by explorers in the Amazon basin.
The giant waterlily Victoria amazonica drew crowds who marvelled at its huge circular leaves, strong enough to support the weight of a child.
A race to present the first giant waterlily flower to Queen Victoria was had among botanists, after Kew Gardens tried for a decade to cultivate the seeds. Six of these were successfully germinated, with some retained and the rest sent to Syon House in London and Chatsworth House in Derbyshire.
Despite astonishing the western world, the plant was well known to the Indigenous people of the Amazon, who used it for food and medicine.