Victoria boliviana in the wild in Bolivia

Victoria boliviana is found in the wetlands and rivers of northern Bolivia. Image © Carlos Magdalena, RBG Kew.

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The world's largest waterlily is bigger than a double bed

The world's largest waterlily has been discovered in the wetlands of northern Bolivia.

Even though its lily pads are visible from satellite imagery, Victoria boliviana had remained undetected until now. 

The solving of a botanical mystery has led to the discovery of one of Earth's largest plant species. 

Though its leaves grow over three metres wide, Victoria boliviana has been overlooked for almost 200 years. Confusion with its close relatives, as well as wider scientific uncertainty, has meant that it has only just been described as its own species.

For Carlos Magdalena, a waterlily expert at Kew Gardens and one of the paper's co-authors, the new description is the culmination of over 16 years of work.

'Ever since I first saw a picture of this plant online in 2006, I was convinced it was a new species,' he says. '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.'

'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.'

The team also discovered evidence of a fourth species of giant waterlily but need to conduct further research to confirm its identity. 

A black and white photograph of the waterlily house at Kew Gardens in 1900

Waterlilies were very popular amongst the Victorians, but the taxonomy of the group became confused during this era. Image © RBG Kew.

The history of giant waterlilies

Waterlilies are among the oldest groups of flowering plants alive today, with fossil evidence suggesting that they first evolved over 100 million years ago.

Today's giant waterlilies live in the tropics of South America and Asia, where they float on the surface of wetlands and rivers. They evolved around 40 million years ago and are eaten by local communities for food as well as being used to makes dyes and medicines

The largest of these water lilies, in the genus Victoria, were first discovered by western scientists in the early 1800s but weren't described until the 1830s. But confusion soon arose, as the plants were described by three separate authors in both German and English-language publications, with a number of different names given to the giant lilies. 

The earliest name was Euryale amazonica, but the uncertainty of names was then propagated by John Lindley, who had described the same species as Victoria regia. Scientific naming rules give precedence to the first name given to a species, but Lindley continued to use his description even after being made aware of earlier publications. 

Part of the reason for Lindley's reluctance to update his name was because he had named it in honour of Queen Victoria, who in 1837 had only recently come to the throne. This is believed to have helped the Royal Horticultural Society and Royal Geographical Society gain royal patronage, as well as keeping Kew Gardens open.

Correcting this would take over a century, with botanists settling on a compromise between the two, with the species now known as Victoria amazonica.

The taxonomic confusion continued throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, with a second species, Victoria cruziana, also described. Further complications arose because of the difficulty in preserving waterlily specimens and the loss of the original specimens during World War Two.

The scientists behind the new paper set out to clear up the taxonomy of the giant waterlilies and discover just how many species there are. 

The pink flower on the second night of Victoria boliviana's blooming  in Kew's Princess of Wales Conservatory.

The flower of Victoria boliviana changes from white to pink during its two days of blooming. Image © Lucy Smith.

How was the largest-ever waterlily discovered?

The authors gathered as much information as possible about all the species of the Victoria genus, including historical records, geographical datasets and community science surveys.

They combined this information with new research, including analysis of the species' genetics and growing the plants side by side at Kew Gardens. This was crucial in revealing the new species of giant waterlily.

Dr Natalia Przelomska, another co-author on the paper, says, 'Analysing the DNA of the giant waterlilies presented some interesting challenges. Being fleshy, they are difficult to dry and make herbarium specimens from so most of the material I worked with was slightly cooked.'

'Once we had generated DNA sequences, our next challenge was the analysis of this data, given that the genome of Victoria has been poorly studied so far and is larger than that of any other waterlily.'

At over four billion base pairs long, V. boliviana's genome is around a billion more than a human's. Analysis suggests that V. boliviana split off from its closest relative, V. cruziana, around one million years ago. 

Among the features its genes code for are seeds bigger than its relatives, which are believed to allow it to grow in deeper water. It also generally lacks prickles, which are used as a defence against herbivores.

The scientists' investigations also revealed the presence of a possible fourth species, also closely related to V. cruziana

While the potential new candidate has some morphological differences from its relative, it is still unclear whether it's a separate species. The researchers have recommended that dedicated research take place to settle this question.

This needs to happen quickly, however, as the areas where the potential new species lives are vulnerable to drought which may expose it to the highest risk of extinction of its relatives. 

Co-author Dr Oscar Pérez-Escobar adds, 'There are many aspects about the life history of Victoria which we haven't answered, and our research provides the foundations for future studies focused on elucidating what is driving speciation in this remarkable plant genus.'