"One of the botanical wonders of the world": Giant waterlily grown at Kew Gardens named new to science

Release date: 4 July 2022

  • International experts describe new giant waterlily species in famous Victoria genus
  • New species marks first discovery of a giant waterlily in over a century and breaks the record as the largest in the world
  • Despite plant specimens sitting in Kew’s Herbarium for 177 years, new expertise and data revealed waterlily as new to science
  • A botanical horticulturist at Kew who has driven forward discovery describes it as “one of the botanical wonders of the world”
  • Spectacular lily pads on display in Kew Gardens

A new paper, published today in the journal Frontiers in Plant Science, outlines a new botanical discovery in the genus Victoria, the famous giant waterlily genus named after Britain’s Queen Victoria in 1852.

However, after years of investigation, a team headed by Kew’s scientific and botanical research horticulturist Carlos Magdalena, freelance Kew botanical artist Lucy Smith, and biodiversity genomics researcher Natalia Przelomska, alongside partners from the National Herbarium of Bolivia, Santa Cruz de La Sierra Botanic Garden and La Rinconada Gardens, have finally been able to confirm it as a new scientific species using novel data and their unique mix of expertise.

The paper’s authors decided to name the species in honour of Bolivian partners and the South American home of the waterlily where it grows in the aquatic ecosystems of Llanos de Moxos. With flowers that turn from white to pink and bearing spiny petioles, V. boliviana is now the largest waterlily in the world, with leaves growing as wide as 3 metres in the wild. The current record for the largest species is held by La Rinconada Gardens in Bolivia where leaves reached 3.2 metres.

A botanical challenge

Species in the genus Victoria have been poorly characterised for decades. This knowledge gap stems from an absence of ‘type specimens’ (specimens of the original plant used to formally describe the species) in global plant collections – this is mainly due to the fact that giant waterlilies are difficult to collect in the wild. In 1832, V. amazonica was the first species to be named in the genus but data have been lacking to enable comparisons against any new species found since — a factor which led to the original misidentification of this new waterlily.

With the goal of improving knowledge of Victoria, the paper’s authors compiled all existing information from historical records, horticulture and geography, and assembled a dataset of the species’ characteristics using citizen science (iNaturalist app and social media posts tagging Victoria and giant waterlilies), and specimens from herbaria and living collections around the world.

Scientists Natalia Przelomska and Oscar A. Pérez-Escobar from Kew also analysed the DNA of V. boliviana and found it was genetically very different from the other two species. The data collected confirmed what the authors had suspected – that there are in fact three species in this iconic genus: V. amazonica, V. cruziana and V. boliviana. Their results suggest that the new species is most closely related to V. cruziana, and that they diverged around a million years ago. Natalia says: “in the face of a fast rate of biodiversity loss, describing new species is a task of fundamental importance; we hope that our multidisciplinary framework might inspire other researchers who are seeking approaches to rapidly and robustly identify new species.”

Dr Alex Monro, Research Leader in the Americas team at RBG Kew and senior author of the paper says, “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. This paper has been an extra special one to work on because it brings together expertise from across so many different fields – horticulture, science, and botanical art, and has involved working in close collaboration with our Bolivian partners. Victoria has a special place in the history of Kew, having been one of the reasons that Kew was saved from closure in the 1830s. To have played a role in improving knowledge about these magnificent and iconic plants has added resonance for the Kew partners.”

A waterlily experts’ hunch

After suspecting for years there was a third species in the Victoria genus, Magdalena, a world expert on waterlilies, began making enquiries to gardens in Bolivia. In 2016, Bolivian institutions Santa Cruz de La Sierra Botanic Garden and La Rinconada Gardens donated a collection of giant waterlily seeds from the suspected third species. As Carlos germinated and grew the seeds back at Kew, watching the waterlily grow side-by-side with the other two Victoria species, he knew immediately something was different. In 2019 he visited Bolivia to check out the waterlily for himself in the wild and was amazed.

He says, “Ever since I first saw a picture of this plant online in 2006, I was convinced it was a new species. Horticulturists know their plants closely; we are often able to recognise them at a glimpse. 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. 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. I’m also spoiled by the fact that here at Kew we can grow all the species together side by side and in the same conditions, which excludes changes in shape and colour due to environmental conditions. In the wild, Victoria grows over a vast extension, and this comparison is not possible. I have learnt so much in the process of officially naming this new species and it’s been the biggest achievement of my 20-year career at Kew.”

A botanical artists' nocturnal observation

Whilst Magdalena was growing and researching the new species at Kew, Lucy Smith, one of Kew’s team of highly skilled freelance botanical artists, was already working on a project to make contemporary scientific illustrations of the two known Victoria species, a task that had not been attempted since Kew artist Walter Hood Fitch illustrated it in 1847 and 1851.

As the flowers of giant waterlilies only open at night, Lucy made many nocturnal vigils to the glasshouses to capture the flowers for drawing and painting. When the first flowers of V. boliviana opened on a stormy evening in July 2018, she shared Carlos’s suspicions that it was unique and quickly set about to describe those differences using illustrations.  What particularly caught her eye was the similarity between this new plant, and the one which Fitch drew from a specimen collected in Bolivia in 1845 and in fact, it proved to be the same one, unknown as a new species to Fitch at the time.

Lucy says: “For me, the confirmation and description of this new species pulls together threads connecting my work as a modern-day botanical artist to the work of Kew’s Walter Hood Fitch. My work as a botanical artist for Kew has trained me to identify and depict the differences between plant species. I was excited to take this one step further by not only illustrating the existing and new species, but also being a lead author of the paper. I hope that the illustrations will help others identify all three species of the giant Victoria waterlilies for years to come.”

A Bolivian specimen collected in 1988 – unknown at the time to be a new species

Dr Stephan G Beck, Professor Emeritus, researcher of the National Herbarium of Bolivia partnered with the Kew team to formally describe this new species. Stephan collected the type specimen for the waterlily unknowingly in 1988 thinking it was Victoria cruziana his specimen trumps the 1845 Kew specimen as it holds more data and provides better knowledge about the species.

He says: When the National Herbarium of Bolivia was born in 1984, there were very few scientific collections for Bolivia and many places to study, but I focused my interest on an area in the Llanos de Moxos. For several years I had the opportunity to collect aquatic plants in flooded areas of the Yacuma River, and obviously longed to see the 'Reina Victoria' which the locals told me about. However, it took me years to find this tremendous plant. Finally, in March 1988 after sailing over two hours up the Yacuma River looking for tributaries with several huge leaves and some flowers, I collected and preserved them in the National Herbarium of Bolivia, which turned out to be a specimen of Victoria boliviana, now the type specimen. It was a great find and one I will always remember.”


The new giant waterlily can now be seen in the Waterlily House and the Princess of Wales Conservatory at Kew Gardens. Kew is the only place in the world where you can see the three described species of Victoria together side by side. Visitors can visit the new species in both locations this summer when the waterlilies look their best.

Kew Gardens: A New Year in Bloom which features the story of Victoria boliviana will air on Channel 5 soon. 



DNA Secrets

Another striking result achieved through the analysis of the DNA of the new species and the two other Victoria species was the time of origin of this new species and its kinship. The results suggest that the new species, V. boliviana, is most closely related to V. cruziana and that these two sister species diverged around a million years ago.

Natalia Przelomska, who led the genomic part of the study, says:Analysing the DNA of the giant waterlilies presented some interesting challenges – most of the material I worked with in the laboratory consisted of slightly cooked fragments of waterlily leaves (being fleshy, they are difficult to dry and make herbarium specimens from), also covered in prickles. 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 (as we know from our co-authors’ previous work on V. amazonica and V. cruziana). As a researcher who has a passion for multidisciplinary work it was very rewarding to play a role in tying together these lines of evidence to reach a robust, collaborative conclusion. In the face of a fast rate of biodiversity loss, describing new species is a task of fundamental importance and we hope that our work can inspire others to try new approaches to rapidly identify new species.”

Dr Oscar A. Pérez-Escobar, Research Leader at RBG Kew says:Understanding the pace at which plant species originate and go extinct is crucial, to determine the time of formation and maintenance of the different world floras. To discover through DNA that a plant group that has so few species and is thought to have originated in the mid Paleogene (~40 million years ago) is still speciating as recent as 1 million years ago is remarkable! 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.

The giant waterlily: The natural wonder of the Victorian age

Kew’s Waterlily House opened in 1852 and was, at the time of opening, the widest single-span glasshouse in the world. It was originally built to house the natural wonder of the Victorian age, the giant waterlily Victoria amazonica, whose genus was named after Queen Victoria. It amazed visitors with its huge circular leaves strong enough to support the weight of a child.

Victorian botanists tried for a decade to cultivate the seeds, noted by European explorers in the Amazon basin in the early 19th century, though it was well known to the indigenous people who used it for food and medicine. Six seeds were successfully germinated at Kew; some were retained, and the others distributed to Syon House, London, and Chatsworth House, Derbyshire, resulting in a race to present the first flower to Queen Victoria.

Today, Kew’s Waterlily House displays the new species V. boliviana, along with other waterlilies and aquatic plants. While all three Victoria species live in Kew’s Princess of Wales Conservatory.

From the largest waterlily to the smallest: Both at Kew Gardens

The world’s smallest waterlily (Nymphaea thermarum) is extinct in the wild, but more than 50 of these plants are growing at Kew Gardens. The species, originally found in Rwanda, was saved from complete extinction in a conservation effort by Carlos Magdalena, who figured out how to propagate the plant in 2009. Carlos says: “N. thermarum was not known to science until the 1980s. Now, discovering that the largest waterlily could be seen from space on Google Earth but was unknown to science highlights how there is still lots to learn about natural science and how you can’t really protect a species if you do not even know it exists. It also shows the importance of maintaining living botanical collections.”

Waterlily Facts & Figures

  • Waterlilies are one of the oldest flowering plants.
  • The largest waterlily in the world is Victoria boliviana. The current record for the largest species is held by La Rinconada Gardens in Bolivia where leaves reached 3.2 metres.
  • The smallest waterlily in the world is Nymphaea thermarum.
  • Giant waterlilies are native to tropical South America and Asia.
  • The first giant waterlily to be scientifically described was Victoria amazonica in 1852.
  • The first waterlily to be described to science was Nuphar lutea (yellow waterlily, spatterdock) and Nymphaea alba (European white waterlily) which were both named in 1753 by the father of binomial taxonomy Carl Linnaeus.
  • The leaf of the giant waterlily can support a weight up of at least 80 kilograms.
  • The giant waterlily flower is white in colour on the first day and pink on the second and only blooms at night. These flowers emerge at dusk and close by noon.
  • The flower has sharp spines on its exterior that are used to protect it from fish and other animals, but its surface and internal area is soft.
  • The lily pad has open notches on the side which are used to drain excess water collected on the top
  • Giant waterlilies also have giant genomes, with over 4 billion base pairs (letters), which is 8-9x that of Nymphaea thermarum and almost 1.5x the size of the human genome.
  • At Kew Gardens, giant waterlilies are grown every year from a seed the size of a pea. Their lily pads can reach 2 metres + in just four months.
  • Kew Gardens was one of the first gardens to grow a giant waterlily species from seed.
  • Today, Kew is the only place in the world where you can see the three described species of Victoria together side by side.


Carlos Magdalena is a Spanish scientific and botanical research horticulturist who works in the Tropical Nursery at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. He is a book author, an international lecturer and a world’s renown waterlily expert. His unique skills as a plant propagator earned him the nick name of ‘The Plant Messiah’ after saving a number of species from extinction and propagating some of the world’s rarest plants. 

Lucy Smith is an Australian botanical artist and illustrator, resident for the past twenty-three years in the UK. Since 2000, she has worked as a freelance botanical artist for the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, producing several hundred botanical illustrations for scientists at Kew around the world. She has received many internationally recognised awards for her work.

Alex Monro is a taxonomist, systematist and field botanist at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, specialising in the eudicot flowering plant family Urticaceae and the production of tools to support the sustainable use and conservation of biological diversity with an emphasis on livelihoods and rural communities.

Natalia Przelomska is a biodiversity genomics postdoctoral researcher in the Antonelli Lab group at Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, who focuses on applying genomic methods to herbarium collections to resolve plant taxonomic relationships. Her other main focus is the domestication of crop plants as well as medicinal plants originating from South America.

About the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew

The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew is a world-famous scientific organisation, internationally respected for its outstanding collections as well as its scientific expertise in plant and fungal diversity, conservation and sustainable development in the UK and around the world. Kew Gardens is a major international and a top London visitor attraction. Kew Gardens’ 132 hectares of landscaped gardens, and Wakehurst, Kew’s Wild Botanic Garden, attract over 2.5 million visits every year. Kew Gardens was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site in July 2003 and celebrated its 260th anniversary in 2019. Wakehurst is home to Kew's Millennium Seed Bank, the largest wild plant seed bank in the world. The Kew Madagascar Conservation Centre is Kew’s third research centre and only overseas office. RBG Kew receives approximately one third of its funding from Government through the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) and research councils. Further funding needed to support RBG Kew’s vital work comes from donors, membership and commercial activity including ticket sales.

Kew’s Tropical Nursery

Packed with thousands of species of plants from across the globe, the Tropical Nursery at Kew is home to some of the rarest, most intriguing, and most endangered plants on the globe. The nursery consists of 21 climate-controlled zones, each of which accommodates hundreds of plants from various landscapes – from tropical rainforests to arid deserts. Among the nursery’s treasures are rodent-devouring carnivorous plants, the oldest collection of orchids and the infamous corpse flower (Titan Arum). The Tropical Nursery also houses Kew’s collection of tropical waterlilies and is where the Victoria species are propagated every year. The plants grown in the Tropical Nursery serve a critical purpose for Kew’s botanists and horticulturists, as well as aiding vital conservation efforts.

National Herbarium of Bolivia

The National Herbarium of Bolivia (LBP) is a centre of scientific study and support educational and professional training. Born from an agreement between the Institute of Ecology and the National Museum of Natural History in 1984, the LBP brought together the study of flora and vegetation from across Bolivia and unified scientific collections, human resources and tools on a national and international scale. Today, the LBP plays a leading role in the documentation of Bolivia’s biodiversity, scientific research and the sustainable management of the country’s resources.