Researchers in London say they’ve identified a new species of the giant water lily plant — after discovering it had been sitting quietly in their collection for 177 years.
The new species, called Bolivian victorywas initially considered to be one of two previously known species, amazon victory and Cruzian victorybecause it looked so similar.
The general genus Victoria was originally named after the British Queen Victoria; Bolivian comes from the fact that it comes from Bolivia.
But a closer look reveals some unique features.
“They have these huge floating round leaves,” Natalia Przelomska, a biodiversity genomics researcher at the Royal Botanic Garden, Kew, told me. As it happens guest host Ginella Massa. “The leaves can reach over 10 feet in diameter,” or over three feet.
Like the other species, Bolivian victory grow impressive flowers, which bloom for only about two days and fade from white to pink.
And when you get close, they have spines around the edge and under the plant. Those spiky spines help protect the plant from whatever it wants to eat.
Those spikes “can be used to beat other plants” for territory, said Przelomska, who also called water lilies a “charismatic species.”
“It’s not very nice to grow next to, so these water lilies can really dominate their environment.”
Przelomska and her team published their findings this week in the journal Frontiers in Plant Science.
The allure of the water lily
Sean Graham, a professor in the Department of Botany at the University of British Columbia, said giant water lilies have always been of interest to people, especially during Victorian times.
“The giant water lilies have been iconic attractions in botanical gardens since Victorian times, when they were used to attract patronage from royalty at the time,” he said.
While this is the case, he said these giant plants aren’t always “so well-studied.”
That’s mainly because the Victoria plants are underrepresented in museum collections.
“Their giant, spiny floating leaves are quite difficult to handle and dry for preservation as reference herbarium specimens,” Graham said.
“And unfortunately, important early reference samples were also lost or destroyed during World War II, further hampering scientific research on them.”
Sometimes you discover new plant species such as the Bolivian can be an extensive process.
Other times, “there may be just a few pieces of the puzzle that need to be put in so that a new species can be identified,” Przelomska said.
“Our job is to put those puzzle pieces together as quickly as possible to discover new species.”
Determining why this species is so different from the other two is pretty easy, she explained: First, it is has larger leaves, seeds and flowers than the amazon and cruziana†
But the flower on the inside of the lily is perhaps its most unique feature.
“This is the area where the beetles pollinating these flowers get trapped for a while. So it can be completely covered in pollen and they fly off,” she said.
For those wondering why the scientists haven’t identified the plant as a new species sooner, Przelomska said for now: There aren’t enough experts to identify them.
“While we have live plants at Kew, most of the plants we have there are actually dried ones,” she explained.
“So we’re hugely privileged to have a herbarium with seven million dried plant specimens, and we just don’t have enough experts to quickly research and identify all of these new plants.”
Written by Keena Alwahaidi. Interview with Natalia Przelomska produced by Morgan Passi.