Skip to main content

'Priceless' African water lily stolen from London's Kew Gardens

By Laura Smith-Spark, CNN
updated 10:39 AM EST, Tue January 14, 2014
The tiny water lily, Nymphaea thermarum, next to the larger Nymphaea, 'Kew's electric blue,' at the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew. The plant is one of the rarest in the world. The tiny water lily, Nymphaea thermarum, next to the larger Nymphaea, 'Kew's electric blue,' at the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew. The plant is one of the rarest in the world.
HIDE CAPTION
'Priceless' water lily theft from Kew Gardens
'Priceless' water lily theft from Kew Gardens
'Priceless' water lily theft from Kew Gardens
'Priceless' water lily theft from Kew Gardens
'Priceless' water lily theft from Kew Gardens
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • The tiny Nymphaea thermarum is stolen from the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew
  • The water lily is the smallest in the world and incredibly rare
  • It was saved from extinction by horticulturalists at Kew and in Germany
  • It was discovered in 1987, growing in the mud by a freshwater hot spring in Rwanda

London (CNN) -- In a crime that will shock the green-fingered, a thief has made off with the tiny water lily Nymphaea thermarum -- one of the rarest plants in the world -- from a botanical gardens in London.

The plant, of which only a handful of specimens still exist in the wild, was stolen from a lily pond at the famed Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, police said.

The thief is thought to have dug or pulled it from the damp, temperature-controlled mud it needs to survive.

Kew Gardens is one of only two places in the world to cultivate this plant, and there were only 30 plants on display, London's Metropolitan Police said. They cite its value as "priceless" because of its rarity.

The stolen plant may have been easier to sneak out of the botanic garden, which has its own security, because of its small size.

The plant's bright green lily pads can measure as little as 1 centimeter (less than half an inch) across, and its white flower with yellow stamen is barely bigger than a fingernail.

Fragile habitat

The Nymphaea thermarum was discovered in 1987 by German botanist Eberhard Fischer at a thermal freshwater spring in Mashyuza, Rwanda -- the only known location in the wild.

However, over-exploitation of this hot spring meant the fragile habitat dried up, and the water lily died out there in about 2008.

It was brought back from the brink of extinction only by the efforts of experts at Bonn Botanic Garden in Germany, where a number of living examples had been taken, and the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew, which succeeded in propagating the delicate plant in 2009.

After a number of failed attempts, horticulturist Carlos Magdalena at Kew cracked the technique needed to persuade the water lily to grow from the remaining precious seeds.

He realized that unlike all other water lilies, the Nymphaea thermarum grows in warm mud rather than water, and so found a way to replicate its native habitat using pots of damp loam surrounded by water kept at precisely 25 degrees Celsius (77 F) -- just as had occurred by the thermal spring. Only then did the seedlings flourish and develop into adult plants, according to Kew.

For a couple of years, the only living examples of the water lily were found in Bonn and London.

Now, a few plants are again found in the wild in Rwanda, according to Kew Gardens, but the Nymphaea thermarum remains critically endangered.

Theft taken 'very seriously'

Richard Barley, director of horticulture at Kew Gardens, said the police had been called in after the theft was discovered Thursday.

The staff is "dedicated to the conservation of plants, and when incidents of this nature occur it is a blow to morale," he said. "We take theft of our invaluable scientific collection of plants very seriously."

According to the Kew Gardens' website, the plant has no common name because of its scarcity but has become known unofficially by its staff as the "pygmy Rwandan water lily."

It "has always been so rare that no uses have ever been known," it adds.

Other instances of theft have occurred, but they are isolated and infrequent, Kew Gardens said.

Rare corpse flower blooms, stinks

CNN's Lindsay Isaac contributed to this report.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 10:39 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Tethered to an IV drip, 71-year-old Shin Young Ja lies under a thin fleece blanket, nursing a broken back and wracked with survivor's guilt.
updated 7:23 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Family members of the missing passengers are pinning slim hopes on floundering air pockets.
updated 12:14 PM EDT, Thu April 17, 2014
An Iranian mother slaps and then forgives her 17-year old son's murderer in dramatic scenes at the gallows.
updated 7:35 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
An "extraordinary" video shows what looks like the largest and most dangerous gathering of al Qaeda in years.
updated 8:30 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Explore each side's case, reconstructed from Pistorius' court affidavit and the prosecution's case during last year's bail hearing.
updated 8:37 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Mentions of the 1989 Tiananmen Square student protests or political reform are still censored in China.
updated 5:34 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
The Hadza are one of the last communities of hunter-gatherers in the world -- but losing their land.
updated 7:46 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
In choosing to change a traditional practice, Francis is being as radical as Jesus was in his own time.
updated 7:13 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Too weak. Can't handle pressure. Unattractive to sponsors. Susie Wolff has heard it all.
updated 6:28 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Browse through images you don't always see on news reports from CNN teams around the world.
updated 8:30 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
It's like finding a needle in a universe-wide haystack. Researchers have located a planet roughly the size of Earth that could be habitable.
updated 5:40 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Dubai, long champion of all things biggest, longest and most expensive, will soon have some competition from a neighboring country.
ADVERTISEMENT