Thursday, March 5, 2020

Botanical Gardens: Giant Victoria Water Lily

by Anita Mae Draper

Woman playing violin, standing on lily pad at Shaw's Garden (Missouri Botanical Garden), in front of Linnean House, c1905. Courtesy of Missouri History Museum, Public Domain
Back in the Victorian age when botanical gardens were flourishing and botanists traveled the world in search of new plants they didn't have in their own gardens, discoveries were made that awed and delighted the citizens of cooler climates. One such plant was a giant water lily with leaves so big that a person could sit or stand on it. German naturalist, Robert Schomburgk, discovered the huge lily with dazzling white flowers in the Amazon River area of South America and named it Victoria regia after Queen Victoria

Botanists grew successful with duplicating growing and propagating conditions, yet no one was able to successfully bring a giant water lily into bloom. Enter Joseph Paxton, the renowned head gardener of Chatsworth in Derbyshire who received one plant from a new batch of seeds propagated at the Royal Botanical Gardens in Kew, England. With a heated tank of his own design, and coal-fired boilers heating the greenhouse, Paxton simulated the Amazonian climate. That fall when Paxton placed his seven-year-old daughter Annie on one of the four-foot leaves, a reporter for The Illustrated London News created an  illustration which was published in the Nov 17th issue of that year, and which also showed the water lily in flower. Yes, Paxton had coaxed the Victoria regia into blooming.

The Gigantic Waterlily (Victoria Regia), In Flower At Chatsworth, Illustrated London News, 1849. Public Domain

In her book The Flower of Empire: An Amazonia Water Lily, the Quest to Make it Bloom, and the World it Created, Tatiana Holway explains how Queen Victoria herself was in attendance to witness the giant white flower start to bloom the first evening, close the next morning, reopen in a rosy pink hue the 2nd evening, and slowly close forever during the second night. But oh, the perfume it apparently lent the air. 

Cornell University has created a time-lapse video of the Victoria x 'Longwood Hybrid' at their Liberty Hyde Bailey Conservatory so we can witness the same event that Victoria did a

Many images exist of the Victoria regia, yet the subject of the images were more often people standing, or sitting, on the giant leaves rather than the flowers themselves. 

Gigantic lily leaf (Victoria Regia), used as a raft - in charming Como Park, St. Paul, Minn. 1903. Library of Congress, Public Domain

Miss Cotton, daughter of Kew's Herbarium Keeper Arthur Cotton, sitting on a Victoria amazonica waterlily in 1923. Creative Commons Attribution CC BY © RBG Kew

 View in one of the greenhouses of the Hortus Botanicus, Netherlands, with the water plant Victoria Regia, in a pond. A boy is sitting on one of the leaves. Late 19th century. Wikimedia, Public Domain

The Book of Water Gardening by Peter Bisset, published in New York in 1907 showed an image of children standing on the giant leaves and an explanation of how the leaves were able to accept the weight due to its underside structure.

The Book of Water Gardening by Peter Bisset. 1907, New York. Public Domain

As you can see from the above images, botanical gardens around the world built greenhouses to mimic the growing conditions needed for the Victoria regia. What is not often known, or shown, is that the water lilies were grown in knee-high ponds. But how could a lily pad support the weight? The underside structure was a marvelous network of ribs which enabled the leaf to float, and coupled with the high rim on the topside, stopped water from covering the leaf which extended its life. Prickles on the underside also stopped fish from getting too close. 

The Gardens of Kew - the work of Kew Gardens in Wartime, Surrey, England, UK, 1943. Wikimedia, Public Domain
Due to its unique ribbed support system, the legacy of the Victoria regia lily leaves was the inspiration it gave for many designs in greenhouse structures that allowed the spanning of wide open spaces for optimum light. 

Despite their strength, a sharp projectile like a straw dropped straight down from a few feet above the giant leaves can poke a hole and allow water to seep onto the topside, initiating deterioration. This makes me pause when I see images of people standing on the leaves. Usually, there are props beneath the people's feet to distribute the weight evenly over a larger surface of the leaf itself, but I would think even that would damage the leaves. 

Tower Grove Park Lily Pond. Man and Woman Standing on Lily Pads (Saint Louis, Mo.) c1910. Courtesy of Missouri History Museum, Public Domain
The Victoria regia can still be found in botanical gardens and natural locales around the world where people seem to have the same sense of wonder about them. Unfortunately, there are those who don't see the beauty of the plant, but the novelty of using it as a target. 

Plastic & giant water lily in the Bogor Botanical Garden, 2018, Bahasa Indonesia. Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain
Botanical gardens are wonderful places to see novel and interesting species in as natural a habitat as can be created. As we face monumental environmental challenges in our modern world, botanical gardens and the teams that run them are instrumental in preserving our diverse biosphere. 

Have you ever visited a botanical garden? Care to share your thoughts on transplanting botanicals from their native environment?


Anita Mae Draper lives on the Canadian prairies where she uses her experience and love of history to enhance her stories of yesteryear's romance with realism and faith. Readers can enrich their story experience with visual references by checking Anita's Pinterest boards. All links available on her website at


  1. What a wonderful post! I love botanical gardens and have lost track of the number I've visited. Leu Gardens in Florida is one of our favorites. I loved the time lapse video.

    1. That's great, Linda. I've never been to any botanical gardens in Florida, but I believe they would have the ideal growing conditions for the Veronica regia, being that it likes humidity, swampy kind of air.

      Thanks for stopping by and sharing. :)

  2. Wow! That's amazing. Thank you for including the time lapse.

    1. You're very welcome, Connie. Thanks for visiting. :)

  3. This is fascinating! I lived in St. Louis for 20 years and visited the Botanical Gardens twice shortly before I moved away. Loved it. I did see those water lilies. So many great things to see there and they even had people to help you decide what to plant in your own yard.
    Another place I visited when I was a teen and a young mother was Cantigny outside Chicago. They had lots of different flowers planted there as well as a WWI battle Museum and the house of a prominent Chicago publisher.

  4. the first image had me concerned it was a fake due to the white hue around the violinist. they had that technology in the 1900s and may have been used as a promotional photo. although seeing the other images you posted shows its definitely possible to stand and sit on these. who knows, the St. Louis botanical gardens is an awesome place. Thanks for your blog here, take care.