Amazon Lily, Victoria amazonica
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A virtual tour to the places where the Amazon lily blooms reveals some incredible stories.
How’s this for a showstopper – when Victoria amazonica bloomed in the South Australian Botanic Gardens in 1868, newspapers ran hour-by-hour updates.
More than 30,000 people – a sizable chunk of the entire state’s population – turned up to see it in a five-day period. You might make jokes about the cultural life of Adelaide at the time, but consider how many people turned up to see the giant flowering titan arum (Amorphophallus titanum) in Melbourne Botanic Gardens on Boxing Day last year. Fact is we’ll flock to a great flowering that expresses the wonder, diversity and complexity of the natural world. In the 19th century the big drawcard was the Amazon lily, and it still draws the crowds in Botanic Gardens around the world. For Richard Schomburgk, director of the Adelaide Botanic Garden in 1868, the flowering was a triumph.
Richard had been on an expedition with his brother Robert in 1837 when the lily was first collected. The brothers were part of a plant hunting expedition in British Guyana on the northern coast of South America. Richard was collecting for the University of Berlin, and Robert for Kew. The lily went back to England, and the glory for the discovery was Robert’s.
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The lily race
The plant, named Victoria regia at the time, has leaves up to two metres wide and gigantic fragrant white flowers that change colour overnight to become pink. Not surprisingly, it inspired severe cases of plant envy and a race among the country’s elite ‘gardeners’. The winner was the Duke of Devonshire, whose Amazonica flowered in the greenhouse at Chatsworth in 1849. The Duke’s head gardener was Joseph Paxton. He had entrusted a seed to a young gardener called Eduard Ortgies, who had almost instant success: in two months the leaves were more than a metre wide. A month later the lily flowered, to widespread acclaim.
The plant continued growing. Clearly it would need a bigger house and Paxton took inspiration from the natural engineering of the leaf itself. Radiating, air-filled struts are connected by flexible cross ribs that give the leaf great strength. (Paxton famously demonstrated just how strong the leaves are by having his daughter Annie stand on a leaf in the middle of the pond!) Paxton tried out a design for his amazonica-inspired glasshouse at Chatsworth, and a few years later scaled up his ambitions in the magnificent Crystal Palace he designed for the Great Exhibition of 1851.
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Bold, beautiful and brief
The lily is now known as the Victoria amazonica, referencing its origins in the quiet ponds and oxbow lakes of the Amazon. The enormous leaves have upturned edges for literally shouldering out any competition, and are also armed with thorns, for deterring nibbling fish and hungry manatees. Notches in the upturned walls allow rainwater to drain away.
The flower is even more extraordinary than the leaves. It spreads its white petals at sunset, allowing easy landing for beetles drawn by the colour and the bloom’s seductive fragrance. As the petals spread, the flower pumps up its temperature by six degrees, providing a cosy overnight stop for pollinating beetles, which are folded into the flower as the petals close. The next evening when they open once more the flowers are pink. The beetles escape and go in search of a fragrant white bloom in which to spread last night’s pollen collection. Having been pollinated the pink flower folds over on itself and sinks to the bottom of the pond.
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Following the lily
Something so extraordinary quickly made its way around the world. Eduard Ortgies was headhunted and took a seedling to his new employer, the famous Belgian horticulturist Louis Van Houtte, who himself worked for King Leopold of Belgium. Ortiges had success again and the first Victoria on the continent flowered in 1850, in a glasshouse constructed especially for it in the Brussels Botanic Gardens. It’s still the highlight of the lily house, even when it’s not flowering.
Amazonica is now a highlight not just in Brussels and in Kew, and in Richard Schomburgk’s pond at the Adelaide Botanic Gardens. We see it as we travel to beautiful gardens all around the world – in March and August in Singapore, and in May at Kew outside London, and at Longwood in Pennsylvania, where a hybrid of the two original species Victoria amazonica and Victoria cruziana grows in a purpose-built mini-palace. Which just goes to show - among the lilies Victoria is still the reigning queen.
Victoria is the feature in the lily house of the Botanic Botanic Gardens. Photo - Robin Powell