World's Smallest Waterlily Saved From Extinction

nymphaea thermarum african waterlily photo

The leaves of Nymphaea thermarum grow to be only a centimeter in size. Image credit: AP Photo/Alastair Grant
Nymphaea thermarum is the world's smallest known waterlily and, until recently, the strange plant whose leaves grow to be only one centimeter in size, was on the brink of inevitable extinction. It's native habitat, and area of only a few square meters around a natural hot spring in Rwanda, had vanished due to exploitation of the reservoir and efforts by horticulturalists to grow the waterlily from seed had all ended in failure.

Then, Carlos Magdalena, a horticultural code-breaker, had a revelation that changed the fate of the plant forever.

rare african waterlily photo

Nymphaea thermarum in it's preferred growing conditions. Image credit: AP Photo/Alastair Grant

Discovered in 1985 by German botanist Eberhard Fischer, the rare African waterlily was endemic to just a small area surrounding a hot spring in Mashyuza, Rwanda. Tapping of the spring source, however, caused the area to dry up two years ago—completely destroying the fragile ecosystem.

Fortunately, Fischer had taken several samples—including seeds—and donated them to the Bonn Botanic Gardens. There they say for a decade, until horticulturalists decided the time had come to revive the species.

nymphaea thermarum african waterlily photo

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

Early attempts at growing the plant, however, ended in failure. Following practices typical of all other waterlilies, the horticulturalists submerged germinated seeds in water. When the plants failed to grow to adulthood, the experimented by altering the pH, water hardness, and depth of the environments.

Still, nothing produced positive results.

nymphaea thermarum african waterlily photo

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

At this point, Carlos Magdalena, who was leading the project at the Royal Botanic Gardens, in London, decided it was time to have another look at the source material. There must, he thought, be something that they had missed.

He returned to the original German description of the plant and noticed a critical line he had overlooked before: "[the waterlily] grows in damp mud caused by the overflow of a hot spring." It meant, quite clearly, that the plant did not grow in the water, as all other waterlilies do, but rather on the damp mud nearby.

He redesigned his growing plots and shortly after the plants flowered in captivity for the first time.

Magdalena explained:

It was only when I searched a little deeper that the key I needed came to the surface. Now we have over 30 healthy baby plants growing here at Kew and some are producing seeds so soon we may have an army of these tiny waterlilies here at Kew. Its future in botanical collections seems secured for the long term.

He went on to say that:

Waterlilies are among the most ancient of flowering plants. This species could provide information about the evolution of flowering plants as it is truly unique. Our immediate priority is the ex situ conservation of the species and thereafter, if the natural flow of water in its historic location can be restored, plants grown at Kew can then be reintroduced into the wild.

Now, this delicate plant—which most experts had accepted as extinct just two years ago—is flourishing in the gardens.

Read more about endangered species:
Lego Artisan Creates Endangered Species for Zoo
Life on the Endangered Species Waiting List
7 Endangered Species We Can't Believe are Single

Related Content on