Why Giant Water Lilies Get So Big – The Post

Kew Gardens, London’s famous and vast botanical garden, they announced to have discovered a new species of giant water lily. Or rather: to have had a specimen in his herbarium, where more than 7 million samples of dried plants are kept, for 177 years, but to have recognized it only now. The species was named Bolivian Victoria and so far it had not been distinguished from Victoria amazonica.

Both are species of water lily native to South America, as their names suggest, and the former can be called the water lily species with the largest leaves in the world: they can reach 3 meters in diameter. The current record of width is held by a specimen that grows in the La Rinconada botanical garden in Santa Cruz, Bolivia: its leaves reach 3.2 meters in diameter.

With the new discovery, the known species of giant water lilies have become three: the third is also South American, and is called Victoria cruziana.

Three o’clock Victoria, named in honor of Queen Victoria of the United Kingdom, are included among the Ninfeaceae: that is, according to the scientific nomenclature, they are part of the same family as the European and Asian water lilies although they are much larger. In general, all water lilies are aquatic herbaceous plants: they take root in the bottoms of shallow bodies of water and their leaves and flowers float on the surface.

Species of the genus Victoria are those with more circular leaves, as well as broad: the leaves of the V. cruziana, although smaller, they can still reach 1 meter and 20 centimeters in diameter. The larger ones can carry the weight of a child.

The Cerro lagoon in Limpio, Paraguay, on April 13, 2021: the giant water lilies that grow there belong to the Victoria cruziana species (Juan Carlos Meza / Getty Images)

The leaves of American water lilies float smoothly despite their size thanks to the complicated structure of ribs (the “veins” of the leaves) that they have on their lower face, the one that rests on the water. They form a lattice inside which air pockets are trapped which act as a life preserver. The leaves of European and Asian water lilies do not have a similar structure on the underside and are less hardy.

For giant water lilies, being able to cover a large area with their leaves gives an evolutionary advantage, because they deprive competing aquatic plants of space, preventing them from reaching the surface and therefore the light, thanks to which the plants practice photosynthesis and obtain nourishment. Thanks to their resistance, they are not damaged by water birds and the spines along the edges defend them from fish.

The new species grows in the Llanos de Moxos, one of the largest swamps in the world located in the north of Bolivia; there live, among others, a species of river dolphin and a species of macaw in danger of extinction. This species naturally produces many flowers throughout the year, which open one at a time and only for two nights. The petals are initially white, then they turn pink.

It was understood that it was a different species than the two already known thanks to the work of the botanist and researcher of the Kew Gardens Carlos Magdalena. Suspecting that Bolivian water lilies were not the same as Paraguayan and Amazonian ones, Carlos Magdalena asked local botanical gardens to provide him with seeds. In 2016 they were sent to her from Santa Cruz and in the following years Magdalena studied the plants that were born, comparing them with those of Victoria amazonica.

The new species is distinguished mainly by the distribution of the thorns and the shape of the seeds. The distinction was later confirmed by genetic analyzes, which also revealed that the Bolivian Victoria is more like the V. cruziana than to the V. amazonicaand all of this was reported in a study published on July 4 in the magazine Frontiers in Plant Science.

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Carlos Magdalena, right, amidst Bolivian Victoria leaves, July 1, 2022 at Kew Gardens (Leon Neal / Getty Images)

Previously it was not possible to make a direct comparison because the three species of Victoria they don’t grow in the same geographic areas – and they are difficult plants to keep all in the same botanical garden, as they take up a lot of space.

The second discovery was made by illustrator Lucy Smith, a Kew Gardens collaborator tasked with making scientific drawings of the then presumed new species. Smith then compared them to drawings of giant water lilies in the Kew Gardens archives and recognized the same plant in illustrations by artist Walter Hood Fitch in 1845, who had used a specimen whose seed came from Bolivia as a model.

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Why Giant Water Lilies Get So Big – The Post

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