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article imageKew Gardens scientist recovers pygmy Rwandan thermal water-lily

By Igor I. Solar     May 19, 2010 in Science
London - The seeds of a tropical water lily native of a freshwater hot spring in Mashyuza, Rwanda, extinct in the wild since 2008, were germinated by a botanist working at London’s Kew Royal Botanic Gardens.
Nymphaea thermarum is very small. The leaves are round as in all water lilies, but no larger than one centimeter. The flowers, also very small, have white petals and yellow stamens. The little plant was described in 1987 by German botanist Eberhard Fischer. Realizing that the tiny water lily plant was at risk of disappearing from its native fragile habitat, Fisher rescued a few plants and transferred them to the Bonn Botanic Garden.
There, scientists managed to keep them alive, but for years were unable to reproduce them from seed. The last plants at the original habitat in Rwanda died when local farmers cut off the flow of the spring to use the water for agriculture. To make things worse, one of the surviving plants left at the Bonn Garden was eaten by a rat. At Kew Gardens, the botanist charged with solving the problem of finding a way to germinate the plant was down to his last 20 seeds.
Carlos Magdalena, a Spanish botanist working at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, struggled for months with several combinations of water temperature and gases aimed at replicating the environmental conditions present at the thermal waters in the rare natural environment of the plant in Rwanda. Finally, Magdalena hit the right combination and managed to induce germination of the intriguing seeds. He discovered that they do not germinate submerged in water as all water lilies do, but in a moist environment with carbon dioxide and oxygen: just plain air.
Water Lily house at Kew Botanic Gardens  UK.
Water Lily house at Kew Botanic Gardens, UK.
DAVID ILIFF
Following the successful germination of about 20 seeds under these conditions, Magdalena now believes that these extraordinary plants can be grown in a coffee cup and readily become a house plant, blooming at anybody’s window sill. Magdalena said:
“It is easy to maintain — you just need a sunny location and to keep it damp. It’s even easier than a houseplant because you can’t over-water it.”
Once he has grown a sufficient number of the tiny hot spring water lily, Magdalena will attempt to bring the plants back to their native location in Rwanda. Additionally, by crossing the thermal lily with other lily species, he hopes to produce and sell plants with different colored flowers and leaves.
“I think the Japanese will go crazy for it. They like miniature lilies as they like bonsai.”
The genetic resource though belongs to the people of Rwanda and the Rwandan Government will have to approve before the plant can be modified and sold.
Palm House at Kew Botanic Gardens  London
Palm House at Kew Botanic Gardens, London
DAVID ILIFF
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