First Giant Waterlily Discovered In Over 100 Years Is Biggest In The World

A case of mistaken identity for 177 years.


Eleanor Higgs


Eleanor Higgs

Creative Services Assistant

Eleanor is a content creator and social media assistant with an undergraduate degree in zoology and a master’s degree in wildlife documentary production.

Creative Services Assistant

Giant waterlily being measured
Lucy and Carlos in Kew's Princess of Wales Conservatory with V.boliviana. Credit: RBG Kew

A giant waterlily growing in the Kew Gardens Herbarium in London, UK, for the last 177 years has recently been discovered to be a new species based on the remarkable hunch of a waterlily expert. This marks the first discovery of a new species of giant waterlily in over a century. Only two other known species of giant waterlily exist in the famous Victoria genus and this new species now makes it a trio. 

The discovery, published in Frontiers in Plant Science, was spearheaded by horticulturist Carlos Magdalena and botanical artist Lucy Smith. Magdalena became convinced that there was a third member of the Victoria genus after seeing photographs of the plant online in 2006.  


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

Two specimens including the one at Kew and one growing in the National Herbarium of Bolivia for the last 34 years were previously believed to be Victoria amazonica. However, after a lengthy investigation, the team has been able to confirm it as a new scientific species. 

The new name for this giant waterlily is in honor of the country where it is found and the Bolivian partners on the project. Victoria bolivia is found in the aquatic ecosystems of Llanos de Moxos and is now the largest species of giant waterlily in the world. The leaves can grow to 3 meters (10 feet) across with the record currently held by La Rinconada Gardens in Bolivia with leaves of their specimens reaching a pretty whopping 3.2 meters across. 

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

Species in the Victoria genus have been difficult to characterize for many years, notably because collecting wild giant waterlily specimens is very challenging. Furthermore a lack of “type specimens' ' which are specimens of the plant that were involved in the original process to help name the species have been absent. V. amazonica was the first to be named in this genus in 1832, but the data has been lacking to compare any new samples against it.

“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."

 Dr Alex Monro, senior author 

To reach the identification of this species the team used a combination of historical records, geography, and horticulture records, plus living specimens from around the world. They also took to social media using citizen science to look at images tagging Victoria and other giant waterlilies. 

Botanical artist Lucy Smith, shared Magdalen's suspicions about the waterlily during her frequent nocturnal visits to the glasshouse to illustrate them, as the flowers are only open at night. There she realized the unique features and set to describing them through her artwork. 

Victoria boliviana illustration
Victoria boliviana illustration Credit Lucy Smith.

Natalia Przelomska and Oscar A. Pérez-Escobar from Kew conducted an in-depth DNA analysis of V.boliviana and found that it was genetically very different from the two known species. Their results suggest that V.bolivia is most closely related to V.cruziana and that they diverged around a million years ago. 


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