(AP) — Researchers at Kew’s Royal Botanical Gardens have long suspected one of their giant waterlilies looks different, but the lack of original specimens made it hard to prove.
Previously there were just two species of giant waterlily Victoria amazonica, and the Victoria cruziana. Now after years of investigating they have named a third, Victoria boliviana.
When a botanist first brought specimens of the plant back to Kew in 1852 it was named after Queen Victoria, a move which lead author Dr. Alex Monro says aimed to peak royal interest in the gardens whose future then was not secure.
Researchers believe the discovery is the first of its type in over a century.
Specimens of the new species have been in Kew’s herbarium for 177 years and in the National Herbarium of Bolivia for three decades.
A few years ago researchers from both institutions began to collaborate to discover whether they were in possession of a completely different species of waterlily.
Seeds from the Victoria boliviana were sent to Kew to be grown side by side with the other two species so the scientists could study the differences. They compared DNA samples which also confirmed the plant was a new species.
Their report in the journal Frontiers in Plant Science says the boliviana is most closely related to the cruziana, but something caused them to evolve differently a million years ago.
According to the researchers, waterlilies are one of the oldest flowering plants on Earth.
They grow at a tremendous rate which is why the scientists created this timelapse video of the lilies in the Princess of Wales Conservatory at Kew Gardens.
Monro describes the plant’s natural habitat.
He says: “So it grows in very fertile mud but in relatively deep water so probably between three and five meters depth and it grows on the edges of big rivers in Bolivia, in the Bolivian Amazon in an area called the Mamoré River, which is a tributary of the Amazon and because it needs very fertile soil to get so big and it grows incredibly quickly. So it goes from the size of a pea, you know, piece-sized seed about a centimeter across, and it becomes this monster in the space of three or four months. You know, it’s quite incredible.”
The crowning glory of the plant is its beautiful flower head.
“And the flowers are this they’re about 20-25 centimeters across, this amazing mass, they change color from dark pink to paler of pink, this amazing mass of petals. Imagine a kind of giant damask rose kind of folded in on itself,” says Monro.
The flower on the waterlily in the tributaries of the Amazon has a very specific function according to Monro and he says the boliviana has obvious differences from the others.
He explains: “The aim of the flower in this giant waterlily is to capture a beetle, so they produce a lot of heat and this attracts the beetles and the beetles go in and then the flower kind of closes around them, effectively a trap and then after a day opens up and releases the beetle, the beetle, by this time is totally covered in pollen and will go and visit another plant. And so within the flower, there will be structures to help do that and in this species, those structures are quite differently shaped and also the flower bud is quite a lot wider and there are also some differences, on they have spines prickles on the flower bud itself and the ones in Boliviana are a different shape.”
Monro says it’s important to know what a plant is, it can help us understand why they may have evolved differently from others.
He says: “Once you have the framework of names, we can then start to study them and evaluate, for example, their extinction threats. But to do that, you need to be able to know that it’s a species and we need to be able to recognize it, which is partly why what we do is so important. But also it’s also very interesting from a scientific perspective and an evolutionary biologist perspective to get insights into how these species have evolved and how they, when they separated from each other. And South America has a very rich geological history, but also there’s been a lot of change in the movements and flow of rivers. And so by studying this aquatic species, which is can only grow and live in a river, we can gain, we can maybe gain some insights into the impacts of this change on evolution.”
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Kew says it’s the only place in the world where you can see the three described species of Victoria giant waterlilies side by side and now visitors to the gardens can take a look at the giant plants for themselves.