For 177 years, it was a case of identity confusion.

A remarkable hunch of a waterlily specialist led to the discovery that a massive waterlily growing in the Kew Gardens Herbarium in London, UK, for the past 177 years is a new species. This is the first time in more than a century that a new variety of giant waterlily has been discovered. There are currently three species of giant waterlilies in the renowned Victoria genus, up from the previous two recognized species.

Horticulturist Carlos Magdalena and plant artist Lucy Smith led the research later published in Frontiers in Plant Science. After viewing images of the plant online in 2006, Magdalena became persuaded that the Victoria genus contained a third member.

Giant waterlily being measured

Lucy and Carlos in Kew’s Princess of Wales Conservatory with V.boliviana. Credit: RBG Kew


“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,” Magdalena explained in a statement sent to IFLscience.

Previously, it was thought that only two examples, including the one at Kew and the one growing for 34 years in the National Herbarium of Bolivia, were Victoria Amazonica. But after a protracted study, the team established it as a novel species.

The project’s Bolivian collaborators and the nation where the giant waterlily is located are recognized in the plant’s new name. Victoria Bolivia, the largest variety of giant waterlily in the world, is located in the aquatic ecosystems of Llanos de Moxos.

The largest leaf measured 3.2 meters across and came from La Rinconada Gardens in Bolivia. The leaves can develop to a width of 3 meters (10 feet).

Giant waterlillies in a river in Bolivia on a glorious sunny day

Victoria boliviana in the wild in Bolivia. Image credit: Carlos Magdalena, RBG Kew

Since it is very difficult to gather wild giant waterlily specimens, species in the Victoria genus have proven challenging to characterize. Additionally, there aren’t enough “type specimens” or plant specimens used in the initial process to help name the species. The first member of this genus, V. amazonica, was named in 1832, but there hasn’t been enough information to match any new samples.

“Having this new data for Victoria and identifying a new species in the genus is an incredible achievement in botany. Properly identifying and documenting plant diversity is crucial to protecting it and sustainably benefiting from it.”

The team combined historical data with information on geography, horticulture, and living specimens from around the globe to identify this species. To look at pictures tagged with Victoria and other enormous waterlilies, they also turned to social media and citizen science.

Since the waterlily only blooms at night, botanical artist Lucy Smith frequently visited the glasshouse during the night to draw illustrations of Magdalen’s misgivings about the flower. She became aware of the distinctive characteristics and began illustrating them in her works of art.

Victoria boliviana illustration

Victoria Boliviana illustration Credit Lucy Smith.

When Natalia Przelomska and Oscar A. Pérez-Escobar from Kew examined V. Boliviano’s DNA, they discovered it was genetically distinct from the other varieties. Their findings imply that V. bolivia and V. cruziana are the two species that are most closely linked and that they split off about a million years ago.

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