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In the 19th century, the giant lily was brought from Guyana to Victorian Britain. There, gardener Joseph ...
2022-03-28 09:00:00

The Queen’s Lily
A Giant Plant from Guyana

Victoria regia, William Sharp, ca. 1854. Rawpixel LTD, Flickr (CC BY 4.0)
The Queen’s Lily
The Queen’s Lily

The impressive flower, discovered in the Amazon in the 19th century, was named in honour of the woman who ruled “the Empire on which the sun never sets.”

Read in 6 minutes

A childless woman yearning for a daughter consults a witch, who gives her a seed. The woman sows it, and when the plant blooms, she finds a little girl among its petals – thus begins Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale, published in 1835. Titled Tommelise in the original Danish (and Thumbelina in English), it is the tale of a miniature girl who is no taller than a thumb. Vilhelm Pedersen, the Danish painter and illustrator of the first editions of Andersen’s fairy tale, depicted her on a water lily leaf.

I do not know whether the renowned British gardener and architect Joseph Paxton was familiar with this fairy tale and illustration, but a dozen or so years after the publication of Thumbelina, in the autumn of 1849, he staged a truly enchanted scene at Chatsworth House, the seat of the Duke of Devonshire in Derbyshire, England. A small group of well-dressed people gathered in a greenhouse around a pond. Large leaves (ca. 1.5 metres in diameter) floated on the water, along with flowers of stunning beauty. Acting as master of ceremonies, Paxton approached the edge of the pond, ushering along his nine-year-old daughter Annie. He picked her up and then slowly lowered her onto a wooden plank that had been placed upon one of the large floating leaves.

The assembled guests let out a sigh of astonishment that was soon followed by a round of applause. Annie took a step forward, but the leaf on which she stood didn’t bend under the weight (the child and the plank must have weighed around 25 kilograms). The girl smiled; her shoes didn’t even get wet. A drawing of Paxton’s daughter standing on a royal lily leaf appeared in The Illustrated London News and was subsequently reproduced in many other magazines.

Source: public domain
Source: public domain

How was Paxton able to achieve this? Some kind of trickery? He didn’t need to resort to that – having carefully studied the structure of the lily leaf, he knew that it gave solid support and was certain that his daughter was in no danger of falling into the water. While he surely could have given a botany lecture instead, he chose a more spectacular way to communicate his knowledge. This event tells us a lot about Paxton’s character – he was ambitious, hard-working and extremely energetic. In the third episode of The Secret History of the British Garden – a BBC documentary series – its creator, host, and narrator Monty Don discusses Paxton with the 12th Duke of Devonshire. The Duke quotes from the diary of his ancestor, the 6th Duke of Devonshire, who employed Paxton: “On the first day of work, (9th May 1826), the twenty-something gardener arrived at Chatsworth at 4.30am, made his rounds of the gardens, gave orders at 6.00am, and went to breakfast, where he promptly fell in love (reciprocally!) with one of the young ladies […]” Combined with the Duke’s fortune, Paxton’s energy would soon produce spectacular outcomes.

A heated race

European botanists first came across specimens of the giant lily while studying the flora of the Amazon basin at the start of the 19th century. They brought a few to Paris; the plants became recognized thanks to the German naturalist Robert Schomburgk, who worked on the mapping of the Amazon Park of Guyana for the Royal Geographical Society in London. His tasks included acquiring interesting plant specimens and rock and soil samples from the colony. “He was having an absolutely miserable time of it,” says Tatiana Holway, author of The Flower of Empire, a book on the Victoria regia lily. “It was broiling hot, soaking wet, there were mosquitoes, and they were hungry.”

Eventually, in January 1837, the explorer encountered something rather stunning at a new branch of a river. Later, he conveyed this impression in Twelve Views in the Interior of Guiana, published in London in 1841: “All calamities were forgotten. A gigantic leaf, from five to six feet in diameter, salvershaped, with a broad rim, of a lightgreen above, and a vivid crimson below, rested upon the water! Quite in character with the wonderful leaf was the luxuriant flower, consisting of an immense number of petals, passing in alternate tints from pure white to rose and pink […] The smooth water was covered with blossoms, and, as I rowed from one to the other, I always observed something new to admire.”

Delighted, Schomburgk attempted to replant the lily and cultivate it in Georgetown, the colonial capital, but these attempts failed. Nevertheless, he commissioned drawings and sent several specimens of the flowers and leaves to London. There they were described and classified, and the botanist John Lindley named the lily Victoria regia (royal Victoria) in honour of Queen Victoria, who had ascended the throne in 1838.

It was not easy to cultivate a plant brought from another climate zone in the greenhouses of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew. Efforts to grow Victoria regia in the British Isles were unsuccessful – the seedlings died shortly after germination. “Many are the disappointments and delays of Science,” wrote Kew’s director, William Hooker, in the monograph about Victoria regia. Further specimens of the plant were distributed between the Botanical Society as well as two private residences, the Duke of Northumberland and the Duke of Devonshire at Chatsworth. A race, driven by curiosity and the desire to make botanical history, had begun. Who would be the first to present the new monarch with an exquisite flower named after her?

The Duke of Devonshire’s wealth and enthusiasm, combined with Paxton’s knowledge, ingenuity and panache, guaranteed their triumph. Paxton was not only an architect who designed the glasshouses at Kew and Chatsworth gardens, but also a horticulturist who listened carefully to the needs of plants. When it came to Victoria regia, the temperature of the water in the pond proved crucial. Paxton decided it should be heated by a triple row of lead pipes, and had a pump installed to provide water circulation that would resemble a river environment. He also had a mound of peat and clay built underwater, and when its temperature reached 29°C (ca. 85°F), he placed the lily there. Following several months of such affectionate efforts, the Victoria regia lily bloomed in the greenhouse at Chatsworth.

By placing his daughter on the lily leaf, Paxton demonstrated not only his stage directing capabilities and commercial savvy (later, he would make a fortune selling his own design of small greenhouses for domestic gardens much more modest than Chatsworth’s), but also his outstanding architectural sense. What he learned from observing the construction of leaves capable of supporting the weight of a child later inspired the technical solutions used to design the Crystal Palace, the grand structure erected for the 1851 Great Exhibition in London.

Victoria and Albert in the garden

Did Queen Victoria, after whom the magnificent lily is named (the name used currently is Victoria amazonica), even like plants? Her diary features sketches of sections of the garden at the Osborne estate on the Isle of Wight – the Queen and her husband Albert’s favourite place. “She loved having breakfast outside,” says the Queen’s biographer, Professor Jane Ridley. Albert considered gardening or landscape gardening an art, it was his great passion. In a letter to his daughter in Germany, he compared it to sculpture – a process of modelling, cutting and editing the land.

Victoria’s sketches of the garden at Osborne clearly demonstrate her affections. Ridley notes that the Royal couple even chose some garden furnishings together from a mail order catalogue. This demonstrates the monarch’s emotional attachment to the construction of her garden. The Osborne archives record the dates on which individual trees were planted. For example, an impressive sequoia was planted by Prince Albert on 24th May 1855, Victoria’s birthday. Both the sequoia and the lily are plants that travelled a long way from overseas. They constituted something of a trophy, an emblem of power. Bringing plants from distant colonies tells us something about the explorers’ sense of discovery, but also about their ego. It also tells us that such fantasies were strictly reserved for the privileged classes – a long time would pass before the gardens of Kew were opened to the public. Perhaps someone, in time, will explore yet another perspective, the point of view of the plants – what did these journeys mean to them?

Victoria regia, William Sharp, ca. 1854. Rawpixel LTD, Flickr (CC BY 4.0)
Victoria regia, William Sharp, ca. 1854. Rawpixel LTD, Flickr (CC BY 4.0)

Translated from the Polish by Joanna Figiel

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Agnieszka Drotkiewicz

is a writer. She has published several novels (“Paris London Dachau”, “Dla mnie to samo”, “Teraz”, “Nieszpory”) and collected interviews (two conducted along with Anna Dziewit: “Głośniej! Rozmowy z pisarkami” and “Teoria trutnia i inne”; and two by herself: “Jeszcze dzisiaj nie usiadłam” and “Piano rysuje sufit”). Agnieszka also published “Dusza światowa” – an extended interview with Dorota Masłowska. Together with Ewa Kuryluk, she wrote a book in the form of a conversation (“Manhattan i Mała Wenecja”), for which they received the Warsaw Literary Premiere Award.