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Rwandan Water Lily Grows in London

The world's largest water lilies are blooming in a tropical greenhouse at London's Kew Gardens.

The world's smallest known water lily (Nymphaea thermarum), extinct in its native central African habitat, is thriving in a British botanical garden. Scientists hope to someday return it to the wild in Rwanda. In the meantime, they plan to display the lilies, intermittingly, starting May 22.

The world's largest water lilies are blooming in a tropical greenhouse at London's Kew Gardens.

Behind the scenes, scientists here are preparing to display for the first time the world's smallest water lily. It was discovered in Rwanda in 1987.

These are some of the only photos of the lily in the wild, found on the edges of a thermal spring by a German scientist. He collected samples that eventually ended up here.

Kew botanist Carlos Magdalena tried for months but the seeds wouldn't grow like other water lilies. So he tracked down a description of where the lily was originally found.

"This water lily, it doesn't grow in a lake or in a river or in a pond, it grows in a thermal hot spring which bubbles water up," Magdalena explained.

Rwanda's brutal genocide in 1994 threatened the rare thermal water lily. The genocide and the war in neighboring Congo displaced millions of people. As Rwandans returned and rebuilt, the water lily's habitat was altered and the plant became extinct in the wild.

Magdalena replicated the plant's original environment, and the lilies thrived. "They start like this, these tiny, almost impossible to see leaves, then they develop further," he said.

Except for one plant sample in a German botanical garden, these are the only thermal lilies anywhere in the world. There are about 40 of them.

Eventually, scientists here would like to take some plants back to Africa.

"We're on the track to bringing it back to Rwanda. We have more plants in cultivation than were originally seen in the wild before it went extinct," said Stephen Hopper, the director of Kew Gardens. "But we have only just worked out how to germinate it and bulk up the numbers, so it will take a few years."

For now, the tiny lily from Rwanda will live and, many hope, flourish here in Britain.