Particular species of plants don’t get in the news that often. When they do, it seems to me that it is typically because of some sort of bad news. Nymphaea thermarum is no exception to that rule, currently making headlines due to the recent theft of a plant of this extinct-in-the-wild species from Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. Today’s photograph–perhaps of the now-stolen plant–is courtesy of C T Johansson@Wikimedia Commons aka Christer Johansson.
Though it has no common name, Kew staff sometimes refer to this species as pygmy Rwandan water lily. The pygmy part of the name? The leaves can be as small as 1cm in diameter, making it the smallest water lily in the world by at least a factor of ten. Nymphaea thermarum was known from only one location in the world: the overflow of a freshwater hot spring in southwestern Rwanda, where a small population grew in the damp mud. Alterations and exploitation of this hot spring later dessicated the soil in which the water lily grew, rendering it extinct in the wild as of 2008. Fortunately, the species is relatively easy to propagate and it has been conserved ex situ at Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew and Bonn Botanic Gardens. If the Rwandan site can be restored, there remains an opportunity to reintroduce the species back to the wild (and some reports suggest this has already started to take place). The genetic line of the stolen plant, though, has likely been lost. With approximately 130 or so plants remaining at Kew (and an unknown, but likely similarly low number at Bonn BG), the loss of the single plant may have a deleterious effect on the long-term survivability of the species due to the effect of a population bottleneck. That’s speculation on my part, though, as I would need to know more about the existing genetic variability in the population (and it would be handy to know how many plants existed in the wild before becoming extinct).
Here is a list of some of the news reports (most with additional photographs):
- World’s smallest water lily ‘stolen’ from Kew Gardens via BBC–most other stories mirror this one
- Kew’s ‘codebreaker’ mourns his lily via The Telegraph goes into more depth about the conservation efforts
- From Kew’s lost waterlily to the Lady’s Slipper: the global illegal plant trade via The Guardian shares a broad perspective
A thank-you to Dr. Sean Graham, UBC Botanical Garden’s Research Director, for being the first to point out this story to me.