Unbeleafable! How the biggest waterlily in the world evaded detection for years in plain sight

by Adam Millward; Edited by News Gate Team

photo by guinnessworldrecords.com

When it comes to nature records, rarely-recorded species found in the depths of the jungle or ocean usually steal the show…

However, there are situations when even record-breaking flora and animals may have been hiding in plain sight for hundreds of years, right beneath our noses.

The first new species of giant waterlily to be confirmed in more than a century is Victoria boliviana.

Kew’s Carlos Magdalena, a world-leading waterlily expert, with his six-year-old son Mateo demonstrating the size and strength of Victoria boliviana’s leaves

Samples of this extraordinary aquatic plant had been within the national herbarium of Bolivia for several decades – and part of the collection at Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, for almost two centuries! – before its true nature was revealed. 

As their name suggests, giant waterlilies have always been known to be of a superlative scale among their kind. Native to wetlands in South America, these mega-plants are marvels of the natural world with their vast strutted floating leaves and formidable spiky flowerheads that bloom only for a couple of days. 

This family of giants also has a complex taxonomic history. When first documented by European botanists in the 1820s, they were classified as Euryale amazonica by the German naturalist Eduard Friedrich Poeppig. In 1837, British botanist John Lindley proposed a genus name of Victoria, likening the plants’ majesty to that of Britain’s then monarch. An amalgamation of both led to the species name Victoria amazonica – which until recently was deemed king of the waterlilies. 

Of course, indigenous peoples of South America knew about these plants long before anyone from Europe showed up. Giant waterlilies were a source of food (the seeds a substitute for maize), medicine and even hair dye. They have their own local names including “auapé-yaponna”, a nod to the auapé (Jacana jacana) bird, often seen darting across their vast pads. 

Kew’s Carlos Magdalena studying wild Victoria boliviana growing in the Llanos de Moxos tropical savannah of El Beni department in north-east Bolivia

It turns out that what had been thought to be the biggest waterlily of them all was all along a case of mistaken identity. In actuality, V. boliviana has the title of largest waterlily species on the earth.

In its native wetlands of El Beni in north-east Bolivia, it’s not unusual for its enormous disc-shaped pads to grow up to 3 m (9 ft 10 in) across, the equal of about two snooker cues.

Variation in the flowers of V. boliviana was one of the telltale clues that it was a distinct species

Its flowers, which only bloom one at a time, can spread out to be up to 36 cm (1 ft 2 in) broad when completely opened, which is almost the same size as a car’s steering wheel.

The leaves of the other two Victoria group members, V. cruziana and V. amazonica, are thought to reach heights of 2.3 m (7 ft 6.5 in) and 2.4 m (7 ft 10.5 in), respectively. Even though they are hardly diminutive in any sense, they fall far short of their only Bolivian cousin.

In July 2022, a thorough reevaluation of the gigantic waterlily family was released in the journal Frontiers in Plant Science.

One of the best waterlily experts in the world and the person who spearheaded the new study, Carlos Magdalena of Kew Gardens, had long held the suspicion that there were more species of enormous waterlilies than the two that were recognized by the government. The plant, according to Magdalena, “had to be a third species because it did not exactly fit the description of any of the recognized Victoria species.”

I’ve spent nearly two decades carefully examining each and every image of a wild Victoria waterlily that I can find online, a luxury that a botanist from the 18th, 19th, or most of the 20th century did not have.

I have seen some seriously big plants on Google Earth, but measuring pads this way is not accurate, although you can get a better scale of the size of the whole plant. There are definitely some whopper waterlilies in the wild – Carlos Magdalena, Kew Gardens

Giant waterlilies have been one of the star attractions at Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew since the institution opened its doors to the public in the 19th century. 

Waterlilies have been a big draw to Kew Gardens since the mid 1800s when a dedicated Waterlily House was built, here pictured circa 1900

The 1852-built Waterlily House – then the largest single-span glasshouse in the world – was designed to show off these exotic behemoths. Crowds flocked to see them, much as they still do today. 

Now housed in a pond within Kew’s Princess of Wales Conservatory, these giants sit alongside the world’s smallest waterlily species. The thermal waterlily (Nymphaea thermarum), endemic to a single hot spring in Rwanda, has pads that span as little as 1 cm (0.3 in) across – a staggering 300 times smaller than their supersized South American cousins! 

A detailed illustration of Victoria boliviana’s key features produced by artist Lucy Smith

Magdalena contacted Bolivia’s La Rinconada ecopark and Santa Cruz de la Sierra Botanic Garden to speak with other horticulturists in response to his intuition that there was a gap in the Victoria family tree. In an effort to solve the botanical riddle, seeds from an alleged candidate for a novel species were delivered to Kew in 2016.

Along with colleagues from Kew, he meticulously researched the waterlily and its seed anatomy as Magdalena cared after the plants. The fact that these lilies were special was quickly established. They differ from other plants in a variety of ways, including the way the prickles on the sepals that guard the bud are arranged. This was a distinct species, which was shown beyond a reasonable doubt by molecular genetic testing.

The original sample of V. boliviana (rear) and a recent sample preserved at Kew’s Herbarium. The poor condition of the former (collected in the 1840s) shows partly how the species went undetected for so long

Asked how V. boliviana’s true identity could have been overlooked for so long, Magdalena explained: “It grows over a vast area. Historically, most transport within inland Latin America occurred by river boat, which means that often a naturalist would encounter only one species. 

“Further than that, this species is tricky to collect. Nowadays, we have better transport and techniques, but back in the day, specimens were often lost to rot. 

“An alternative was preserving in spirit. The specimens are very large, and from the leaves, only a small bit of the pad would be taken. Colours and shapes of the rims do not preserve well, seeds were often missed and flowers shrink and deform.” 

A team of gardeners had to lift the superlative waterlily leaf out of the pond at La Rinconada ecopark in 2012

The 3.2-m-wide (10-ft 6in) Victoria boliviana pad grown in 2012 is the largest undivided leaf ever recorded by GWR

On receiving an official GWR certificate for the largest waterlily species on behalf of his country on 30 January 2023, Bolivia’s Charge d’Affaires to the UK, Juan Carlos Crespo Montalvo, said: “The recent scientific discovery of the new species of giant waterlily in Bolivian territory and baptized as Victoria boliviana is a finding of great joy and hope for all peoples. Nature continues to surprise us with new discoveries.

On 30 January 2023, GWR’s Adam Millward visited RBG Kew to present an official certificate to Juan Carlos Crespo Montalvo, Bolivia’s Charge d’Affaires in the UK, to recognize Bolivia’s record-breaking endemic waterlily

“Mother Nature is respected in Bolivia, and we are committed to fostering our friendships, research collaborations, and cooperative relationships.”

However, this newly discovered aquatic plant’s record-breaking voyage did not finish there. Investigating its past revealed that a very huge V. boliviana lily pad was raised in 2012 at La Rinconada gardens in Santa Cruz de la Sierra, Bolivia.

The enormous pad was 3.2 m (10 ft 6 in) in diameter, but if the upturned edge was flattened, it would be 3.37 m (11 ft) in diameter. Its space was roughly 7.55 m2 (81.3 sq ft), which is equivalent to two king-size beds.

This made it not just the largest waterlily leaf on record, but also the largest undivided leaf of any plant ever documented.

For posterity, the record waterlily leaf at La Rinconada was coated in plaster and painted in its natural colours

La Rinconada were so proud of their extraordinary lily pad that, before it could perish, they collected it and cast it in plaster and painted it in its natural colours to preserve it forever. To this day, visitors to the park can see this phenomenal foliage. 

The waterlily pond at La Rinconada always hosts a stunning display of giant waterlilies every year

by Adam Millward; Edited by News Gate Team

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