A new species of giant water lily has been discovered – and it’s been hiding in plain sight for 177 years.
The huge plant was in the archives of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew and growing in a number of aquatic collections, but was misidentified as another species.
Now, detailed scientific study has revealed that it is new to science.
It also holds the record for the largest water lily in the world, with leaves over 3 m (10 ft) wide.
The plant was called Bolivian Victoria – named after Bolivia, where it grows in a single pool of water in part of the Amazon river system.
Horticulturist Carlos Magdalena, one of the world’s foremost experts on water lilies, has long suspected the plant to be different from the other two known giant species, amazon victoria and victoria cruziana.
So, in collaboration with scientists from Bolivia – from the National Herbarium of Bolivia, the Santa Cruz Botanical Gardens and the La Rinconada Public Botanical Garden – he collected seeds and brought them back to Kew.
He told BBC News: “It meant we could grow it side by side with the other two species in exactly the same conditions. Once we did that, we could see very clearly that every part of the factory was totally different. »
He described the discovery as the “highlight” of his career.
Alongside Carlos, botanical illustrator Lucy Smith made detailed scientific drawings of the three species.
It also involved entering the greenhouse at night as the water lily flowers only come out in the dark.
She said: “I was able to access the flowers, and also by looking at the leaves, I was able, as an illustrator, to highlight the differences that I saw.
“And actually, as I was drawing those differences, they got even stronger in my mind, and I found new ways to tell them apart.”
She added: “I may be biased, but of the three species I think [the new species] has one of the most beautiful flowers.
Kew has a long history with plants: The Water Lily House was built in 1852 to showcase its collections.
The giants – discovered in the 1800s – were a natural wonder of the time, and the genus was named after Queen Victoria.
But the new discovery shows that water lilies still have surprises, and scientists say there’s still a lot to learn about them.
Dr Alex Monro from RGB Kew explained: “None of the three species has been studied very well.
“We still don’t know how many populations there are and how much they vary in size. We don’t understand the biology of pollination very well. We don’t know much about the dispersal of the species – how it spreads from place to place.
“So there are still a lot of unknowns. And I think because they’re so huge — so obvious — people haven’t really thought about studying them in so much detail.”
The description of the plant is published in the journal Frontiers in Plant Biology.
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