Kew Garden's 'Plant Messiah' discovers new species of waterlily

Carlos Magdalena – Kew Gardens’ resident tropical plant and waterlily expert – has discovered a brand new species of waterlily whilst on a plant hunting expedition in Western Australia.

The yet-to-be named waterlily. Image: Carlos Magdalena, RBG Kew.
The yet-to-be named waterlily. Image: Carlos Magdalena, RBG Kew.
This is Magdalena’s first discovery of a previously unknown species – he shot to fame after saving the world’s smallest waterlily (Nymphaea thermarum) from extinction in 2009, and has since been dubbed ‘The Plant Messiah’ by the press.

Joining teams from Kings Park Botanic Gardens and the University of Western Australia, Magdalena participated in a three week field expedition, covering hundreds of miles by Jeep and helicopter. The aim was to collect as many native species as possible for cultivation, as well as to study and develop the germination and storage of waterlily seeds from the many species of Nymphaea, found in the vast territories of Queensland and Kimberley.

The team encountered a brand new species in a remote spot in Kimberley. Even though an identical plant had previously been collected in the Northern territories and subsequently grown at Kew, it had been thought that that the lily must be a hybrid - a cross between two different plant varieties to acquire the attributes of each.

However, this new location was thousands of kilometres from where the original lily had been discovered, and there was no trace of the suspected parents in the surrounding area. Magdalena realised it was in fact a well-defined and separate species.

He said: "After years of wondering about this plant, it was huge a surprise to make this discovery. Finding the first population was a shock, but then we found creeks filled with just this species – it was breath-taking."

Searching Australian lakes, ponds and waterways in a country reknowned for its crocodiles was "extremely scary at times", Magdalena said. 

"Ultimately, if you are attacked by a crocodile there is nothing you can do but accept your fate as waterlily fertilizer! Despite spending great lengths of time assessing the risk, there were occasions where we had to enter potentially dangerous waters to reach a critically endangered species that desperately needed further research.

"It is vitally important that we have a thorough knowledge of how many species there are out there. Without it, it is impossible to protect them. Where they are, how many, which threats they may face - all these factors must be established. Plant conservation of this nature is at the very heart of what Kew exists to do."

Once this discovery has been backed up with DNA analysis, the next step will be to officially name the waterlily. Magdalena collected a dozen species from 30 different locations, which have been duplicated in Australia and Kew. If successfully grown at Kew, their DNA will be available for international researchers to study, and will produce seeds that will be stored at the Millennium Seed Bank at Wakehurst.

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