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World's Largest Waterlily Had Been Hiding in Plain Sight

Updated: Feb 15, 2023

When it comes to nature records, it is typically never-before-documented species discovered in the depths of the jungle or ocean that steal the limelight. But sometimes even record-setting flora and fauna might have been lying under our noses for hundreds of years, hidden in plain sight. Such is the case with Victoria boliviana, the first new species of giant waterlily to be confirmed in more than 100 years.

World's largest waterlily
Kew's Carlos Magdalena, a world-leading waterlily expert, with his six-year-old son Mateo demonstrating the size and strength of Victoria boliviana's leaves | Credit: GWR

Samples of this extraordinary aquatic plant had been within the national herbarium of Bolivia for several decades - and part of the collection at Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, for almost two centuries! - before its true nature was revealed.

As their name suggests, giant waterlilies have always been known to be of a superlative scale among their kind. Native to wetlands in South America, these mega-plants are marvels of the natural world with their vast strutted floating leaves and formidable spiky flowerheads that bloom only for a couple of days.

This family of giants also has a complex taxonomic history. When first documented by European botanists in the 1820s, they were classified as Euryale amazonica by the German naturalist Eduard Friedrich Poeppig. In 1837, British botanist John Lindley proposed a genus name of Victoria, likening the plants’ majesty to that of Britain’s then monarch. An amalgamation of both led to the species name Victoria amazonica - which until recently was deemed king of the waterlilies.

As it transpires, what had been considered the biggest waterlily of them all was a case of mistaken identity all along. It is, in fact, V. boliviana that takes the crown as the planet’s largest waterlily species.

It's not unheard of for its huge disc-shaped pads to grow up to 3m (9 ft 10 in) wide in its native wetlands of El Beni in north-east Bolivia.

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