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Nymphaea thermarum

The world’s most beautiful botanical crime


Not long ago, someone stole the Nymphaea thermarum from Kew Gardens in London, this is the extravagant story.

In February 2014, the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, in London, inaugurated an orchid show ominously titled: “Plant Hunters”. The exhibition was a journey to the past, which traced the footprints of intrepid Victorian plant hunters, who mainly stole orchids and ferns. During the event, one of the greatest botanical crimes of all time took place: the disappearance of a Nymphaea thermarum, the smallest water lily in the world, extinct in the wild and of which there are only around 100 greenhouse specimens.

Botanical crimes are not all uncommon in this type of context. According to specialist Trevor Dines, these crimes tend to fall under three categories: the casual picking of wild flowers; the large-scale theft of popular nursery plants; and the targeting of particular plants by obsessive collectors. The stealing of Kew’s Nymphaea thermarum definitely belongs to this last species because, for instance, very few people knew about the existence of this flower. Its theft was like the meticulous robbery of a museum piece.

The Nymphaea thermarum was discovered in 1987 in just one location: Mashyuza, Rwanda. But three years ago it disappeared due to the overexploitation of a hot spring that kept the plants humid and at a constant temperature. In 2009, Spanish scientific horticulturist Carlos Magdalena —a true lotus obsessive— was able to have some seeds sent to Germany, where a few species exist, albeit not in the best conditions.

Magdalena found a perfect formula to cultivate the tiny nymphaeas in Kew Gardens with a little extra carbon dioxide, and thus rescued this rare species from certain extinction.

Ever since some obsessed water lily collectors found out about it, they haven’t stopped asking the Spaniard to sell or give away seeds to them, which he has refused due to the bureaucratic problems surrounding the trafficking of species on the brink of extinction. In addition to being supremely complicated, the permits to cultivate and profit from endangered plants require the profits to go to regenerating the natural habitat of each species. Seeing they could not get their hands on a Nymphaea thermarum, the obsessed botanists only intensified their desire.

There is a clear irony in putting together an exhibition about 19th century plant hunters and then calling the police when one of the prized specimens gets stolen. Perhaps when Magdalena published his discovery of the plant and the correct way of growing it, he generated an irresistible desire among plant collectors and traffickers. In this current phase of planetary conservation (or gradual extinction) we live in, it is possible to conceive the theft of plants as part of a general and depressing acceleration: while more plants are in danger of going extinct because their habitats are destroyed, the more desirable they become for collectors because they are rare, etc.

To this day, there is no trace of the flower’s thief. Apparently solving a botanical crime is not easy. Richmond police closed the case in a matter of weeks. In the United Kingdom, the only police agency devoted to such matters is the National Wildlife Crime Unit, which has a 12 person team. And their priority is not lotuses.

Although the crime sounds like a beautiful Pink Panther episode, the near extinction of these plants is also a threat for humans. “They are the most relevant things to humans really, even though humans don’t realize it”.

Magdalena explains extinction in the most simple and intelligible manner:

Each chromosome is a letter. Each gene is a word. Each organism is a book. Each plant that is dying contains words that have only been spoken in that book. So one plant goes, one book goes, and also one language goes and perhaps a sense of words that we will never understand. What would have happened with Shakespeare with no roses? And Monet with no water lilies?

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