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World’s smallest water lily saved from extinction
Published on 19 May. 2010 11:54 PM IST
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The smallest water lily in the world, which had vanished from its only known hot springs location in Africa, was saved from extinction by experts at Kew Gardens, it was revealed today.
The tiny plant, whose lily pads can be as small as 1cm across, is known as the ‘thermal water lily’ because it was discovered growing in the muddy edges of a freshwater hot spring.
The water lily was discovered in 1985 and was only known in one location in Mashyuza, Rwanda, from where it disappeared around two years ago as water feeding the spring was extracted for agriculture.
Professor Eberhard Fischer, who discovered the species Nymphaea thermarum, transported a few specimens to Bonn Botanic Gardens, where horticulturists were able to preserve them - but they proved extremely difficult to propagate.
A handful of seeds and seedlings were sent to the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, and were initially grown like other water lilies, submerged in water, but failed to develop.
After a series of trials attempting to propagate the species in different conditions, expert horticulturist Carlos Magdalena finally solved the mystery of how to make them grow - with the help of the original German description of their natural habitat.
The species was found growing in damp mud where the hot spring overflowed, and while water reached the surface of the spring at 50C, it was 25C in the area the plant had colonised.
Mr Magdalena placed seeds and seedlings in pots of loam in small containers of warm water, which kept the water at the same level as the top of the soil. This meant the plants were exposed to the air and consequently higher concentrations of carbon dioxide (CO2) and oxygen than is found under water.
Mr Magdalena said he had tried growing the seeds at different temperatures and water hardness and ‘nothing seemed to work’. The only thing he had not manipulated was the levels of CO2.
Down to his last batch of seeds from Bonn, he tried the different technique, and ‘suddenly everything came together’, he said.
The plants soon began to improve, and eight water lilies flourished and grew to maturity.
They flowered for the first time in November 2009 and produced seeds - with dozens of seedlings now growing at Kew.
The discovery of how to propagate the plant came just in the nick of time, as the species had not only vanished from its only known site in the wild but one of two last remaining plants in Bonn was eaten by a rat.

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