New Species of Giant Waterlily Is the Largest in the World

The discovery of the enormous plant type surprised researchers

An image of two reseachers measuring a giant waterlily pad in the water with a measuring tape
V. boliviana is now the world’s largest known giant waterlily species, with leaves that can grow almost ten feet wide in the wild. RBG Kew

Biologists have found a new species of giant water lily hiding in plain sight. Dubbed Victoria boliviana, the new species was discovered after it had been mistaken for another species at London’s Kew Gardens for 177 years and in the National Herbarium of Bolivia for 34 years, the AFP’s Akshata Kapoor reports. 

Plant experts at Kew originally thought the plant was Victoria amazonica, one of the two known varieties of the colossal waterlilies named after Queen Victoria in 1852. The researchers found it belonged to a new species after collaborating with another team in Bolivia. Findings on the new waterlily were published this month in Frontiers in Plant Science.

V. boliviana is now the world’s largest known waterlily species, with leaves that can grow almost ten feet wide in the wild and support at least 176 pounds, CNN’s Amarachi Orie reports. The giant lily is found in freshwater rivers, ponds and floodplains in northeastern Bolivia. The plant produces various flowers throughout the year. Bloom colors turn from white to pink and are covered in sharp prickles, a statement explains. Scientists suspect their large size may help them compete with other plants for sunlight.

An image of V. boliviana's first blooming flower
V. boliviana produces various flowers throughout the year. Flower's change color from white to pink. Lucy Smith

Seeds of the new giant water lily arrived at the Kew Gardens after horticulturalists at the Santa Cruz de La Sierra Botanic Garden and La Rinconada Gardens in Bolivia donated them in 2016. After the seeds germinated and grew, Carlos Magdalena, one of the study researchers at the Kew Gardens, saw that the plants appeared different from the two known species of giant water lily. Magdalena was able to point out the differences between the three species because the Kew Gardens is the only place where they are grown side by side, CNN reports. The plant had a different distribution of prickles and different seeds than the other plants of the Victoria genus, per a statement. Noting the distinct qualities, Magdalena traveled to Bolivia to see the specimen growing in the wild, reports Carissa Wong for New Scientist

The researchers also found that V. boliviana was genetically different from the other known giant lily species and is most closely related to V. cruziana. Further analysis found that a common ancestor between V. cruziana and V. boliviana split from V. amazonica five million years ago, per New Scientist. The common ancestor between V. boliviana and V. cruziana may have diverged a million years ago, per CNN. 

Despite being only recently discovered, scientists found that V. boliviana has a greater risk of going extinct than the other two species in the genus because of its small geographical range. All three species are under increased threat because of continuing deforestation in the Amazon, New Scientist reports. Visitors to the Kew Gardens can view all three species of Victoria side by side in the garden’s Princess of Wales Conservatory