Watch: New record-breaking giant waterlily species discovered at Kew Gardens
Victorian visitors to Kew were once amazed by a giant waterlily that could support the weight of a child. And now the London botanical garden has discovered an even bigger species of the aquatic plant, which has been hidden in its collection for 177 years.
The giant waterlily, collected in 1845, was long thought to be a specimen of the famous Victoria amazonica, first discovered in Guyana in 1837 and brought back to flower in the glasshouses at Kew and Chatsworth.
But experts at the botanic gardens began to suspect there might be a giant waterlily species entirely new to science after seeing pictures of it online in the wild.
In 2016, they finally managed to collect some seeds from Bolivia and grew them back in London, where a Kew artist made the link with the 1845 specimen by comparing her drawings to those made by a Victorian artist of the earlier plant.
The new species, named Victoria boliviana, is the first new giant waterlily found in more than a century, and breaks the record for the largest in the world, with leaves as large as three metres wide in the wild.
The discovery has been published in a paper in the journal Frontiers in Plant Science.
Carlos Magdalena, a scientific and botanical research horticulturist at Kew, and co-author of the paper, said the plant was “one of the botanical wonders of the world”.
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.
Watch: 'Waterlily,' charges your phone on outdoor adventures
“I’m also spoiled by the fact that here at Kew we can grow all the species together side by side and in the same conditions, which excludes changes in shape and colour due to environmental conditions.
“In the wild, Victoria grows over a vast extension, and this comparison is not possible. I have learnt so much in the process of officially naming this new species and it’s been the biggest achievement of my 20-year career at Kew.”
The new species takes the total of Victoria giant water lily species to three, and Kew researchers found boliviana is the biggest of the group and more closely related to the cruziana species than the amazonica lily it was long mistaken for.
It blooms overnight and can support the weight of a person, much like the others. However, the physical differences between the species are subtle, which may explain why the new species was not recognised as such for so long. Boliviana has white petals when it buds, compared to the maroon shade of V. amazonica. The underside of its leaves are also smoother, while its seeds are spherical in shape, not ellipsoid.
“There are a few ways of telling the new species apart from the other two species V. cruziana and V. amazonica,” Lucy Smith, one of Kew’s botanical artists who worked on the study, told The Telegraph.
“The leaves of V. boliviana are the biggest recorded – 3.2m at La Rinconada garden in Bolivia. The largest recorded leaves for V. amazonica and V. cruziana are about 2.8m.
“The flowers of V. boliviana are also the largest we have measured so far at 36cm in diameter when fully open, compared to about 30cm in the other two species.”
There are also minor differences in the size and shape of the flower rims and in the ovary morphology, she said.
Ms Smith helped confirm the discovery by comparing her drawings to those of Walter Hood Fitch, a Victorian botanical artist, who drew the 1845 specimen in 1847 and 1851.
Two scientists at Kew, Natalia Przelomska and Oscar Pérez-Escobar, also analysed the DNA of the new species to confirm that it was different to the other two known species.
They found it was most closely related to V. cruziana and the two species had diverged around a million years ago.
The botanical garden is now the only place in the world where all three species of the waterlily can be seen side by side.
Queen Victoria, the namesake of all three plants, saved the garden from closure by supporting a campaign to bequeath it to the nation in the 1830s.