Scientists Identify the World’s Largest Waterlily Species That Was Hiding in Plain Sight for 177 Years


Jul 5, 2022


Image credit: Alamy

A case of mistaken identity, a leaf hiding in plain sight, and a discovery unrivaled in over a century. This is the story of Victoria boliviana, a newly identified waterlily species, residing in the stunning gardens of Bolivia. But novelty is not the only thing that singles out V. boliviana; with leaves growing over three feet in the wild forests; this is also the largest water lily plant to be discovered on this planet.

To put this in perspective: botanists found something new to science in over 177 years, and the said discovery shatters all records with its striking pink and white leaves.

Just how big is the water plant? “The lily pads could definitely take the weight of a young child,” said Natalia Przelomska at Kew Gardens in the U.K., a member of the research team. While they are yet to test out the strength of the water leaf, it is theorized that they can support the weight of around 80 kilograms. Amid species extinction and biodiversity loss, naming something new to science easily classifies as “one of the botanical wonders of the world,” as one of the study authors said. Their research was published in the journal Frontiers in Plant Science this week.

In the 19th century, European botanists found water lilies floating in the region, thinking they are one big water plant. Then came the realization that they were, in fact, two species; which were subsequently named V. amazonica and V. cruziana after British monarch Queen Elizabeth.

Even two is little sometimes. “For almost two decades, I have been scrutinizing 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,” said Kew’s scientific and botanical research horticulturist Carlos Magdalena. The research team went over the specimens of the water lily that were sitting in the Kew gardens for 177 years, the plant carrying the mistaken sheen of familiarity. The researchers at Kew Gardens in the U.K., on further analysis, realized them to be three species — officially identifying Victoria boliviana this week.

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Their paper highlights that in terms of genetics, V. boliviana shares more similarities with V. cruziana, but the two diverged in detail some one million years ago.

The science of finding and naming water lilies is fraught with some challenges. They are called wonders of the Victorian age, but giant water lilies are difficult to collect from the wild, feeding into a knowledge gap around their anatomy. Even the seeds of the current water lily plant were collected in 1988 by one Dr. Stephan G. Beck. “…it took me years to find this tremendous plant,” he told The Guardian. He investigated the flooded areas around Yacuma River, “looking for tributaries with several huge leaves and some flowers.”

Interestingly, back in the Victorian age, the plant’s discovery drew fascination and gasps from everyone who came to visit the giant leaves in the Kew Gardens. But for indigenous communities living in the Amazon, the water lily was routinely used for medicinal and food purposes.

While glee encases this story of a beautiful water lily, there remains concern about its future. By virtue of the small geographical area where it lives, V. boliviana faces a greater extinction threat. This is compounded by the fact that the Amazon rainforest continues to be grazed and ravaged; last year, it saw the worst deforestation levels in almost 15 years.

“Like the other species, V. bolivana is at threat because the environment has been degraded year by year,” said Natalia Przelomska, a scientist at Kew who worked on the project.

In the here and now, V. boliviana represents a sweet victory, offering a chance to do more and, perhaps, hope more. As Przelomska says: “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.”


Written By Saumya Kalia

Saumya Kalia is an Associate Editor at The Swaddle. Her journalism and writing explore issues of social justice, digital sub-cultures, media ecosystem, literature, and memory as they cut across socio-cultural periods. You can reach her at @Saumya_Kalia.


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