When one gets to read travelogues about the country, one does not get to hear about a rare, tiny Rwandan water lily whose date of discovery turns 30 this year.
And yet, the lily has something of a dramatic reputation having been rescued from extinction, then being stolen from the Kew Botanic Gardens in London to some international concern.
Measuring only a centimetre in diameter, the flower would be nothing remarkable, except for its startle of yellow filaments in white petals, like an ornate button on a green tie-and-die tunic not uncommon in these parts.
Scientifically named Nymphaea Thermarum or thermal water lily, it is the only naturally occurring lily that does not grow on water per se, but on muddy banks of a hot spring (amashyuza), in western Rwanda, where it was discovered by German botanist, Eberhard Fischer, in 1987.
Fischer’s car had broken down nearby when he came across “a carpet of tiny nymphaea”, only for him to realise the flower was unknown to science.
He carried a few specimens to the Bonn Botanic Gardens in Germany where they would find a scientific home. But it was a home in which resident horticulturists, no matter how they tried, could not propagate it to seed and multiply.
In the meantime, water from the hot spring was being diverted – some suspect for commercial, if rudimentary laundry purposes – draining the area where the lily grew. And, naturally found nowhere else, the thermal water lily was in grave danger of being lost from its unique natural habitat.
By 2008, the rare Rwandan lily was being marked off as extinct in the wild.
However, around this same time and shortly before the German botanists had given up in their efforts losing their last remaining Nymphaea Thermarum specimen, an expert horticulturist by the name of Carlos Magdalena, then working at the London’s Kew Botanic Gardens, had requested some samples.
It was in the nick of time. The unique thermal water lily was the only flower of the genre nymphaea not found at Kew at the time.
Kew Gardens are an immensely impressive glasshouse with climate controls that allow it to contain 10 plant habitats – from desert to tropical rainforest and icy swamps – under a single roof.
Even so, it would take Magdalena’s tenacious persistence and some creativity to figure out the right conditions outside its natural habitat to propagate the nymphaea.
From his much lauded efforts, the thermal water lily was only successfully grown from seed in 2009.
In May 2010, the Nymphaea Thermarum memorably graced the distinguished Kew Gardens poster commemorating that year’s International Day for Biodiversity.
But the rare Rwandan flower had whetted some collectors’ appetite to own it. And, in January 2014, it was all over international media, the unique lily had been stolen from display at Kew.
Though it would never be recovered, and was only one of 24 specimens alive at the time in addition to more seedlings in store, it best highlighted the wider plight of endangered plants brought back from the brink of extinction by the botanic gardens.
Kew’s ultimate aim is to restore such rare species to their or original habitats. And one way of doing this is finding a commercially viable solution where profits can be shared with their home countries to help rebuild habitats under the strict international convention on biodiversity.
There’s yet another unique Rwandan flower, a balsam, scientifically named Impatiens nyungwensis after Nyungwe Forest where it was discovered in 2008. Somebody should pay attention, as per the 2011 Rwanda biosafety policy, and note that round 20 percent of the world’s 380,000 plant species are now thought to be threatened by extinction.
As for the Rwandan water lily, I reckon it should be as with the fauna previously lost to Rwandan biodiversity, such as the lions now successfully settled at Akagera National Park.
Reintroduction of the black rhino is also soon set to follow to complete the Big Five that includes the buffalo, elephant and leopard.
There is no reason why a way should not be found to give the Rwandan water lily pride of place where it belongs.