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Giant waterlily grown at Kew Gardens named new to science

A new paper, published today in the journal Frontiers in Plant Science, outlines a new botanical discovery 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 headed 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, have finally been able to confirm it as a new scientific species using novel data and their unique mix of expertise.The paper’s authors decided to name the species in honour of Bolivian partners and the South American home of the waterlily where it grows in the aquatic ecosystems of Llanos de Moxos. 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 3 metres in the wild. The current record for the largest species is held by La Rinconada Gardens in Bolivia where leaves reached 3.2 metres.

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. As Carlos germinated and grew the seeds back at Kew, 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.

He says, “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. 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.

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