It was a time when the sun never set on the vast British Empire. Eighteen-year-old Victoria became Queen in June of 1837. That same year, Sir Richard Schomburgk discovered a mysterious “vegetable wonder” on an expedition to British Guyana in the shallow tributaries of the Amazon River. Unable to snap a quick selfie with the giant Victoria water lily Schomburgk sent drawings and written descriptions back to Britain. Nevertheless, his discovery went viral by Victorian Era standards.
Growing numbers of exotic ornamental plants were being transported from all over the world back to Europe and the United States by the 1800s. While plants had been cultivated since the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, the Victorian Era brought a new level of excitement to horticulture.
Private British collectors vied with Kew Botanical Gardens for exotic plant specimens and seeds coming from explorers to fill their extensive gardens and greenhouses. When Schomburgk presented his findings to the London Botanical Society on his return from South America, his news sparked a furor among horticulturists and the general public alike.
A Penny Weekly’s headline touted “A Vegetable Wonder!” Another announced, “Gigantic Flower—New Discovery!” According to the Kew Gardens site, the story of the giant Victoria water lily sold as well as the serialized version of The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens
The race to cultivate the giant Victoria water lily began. Despite the fact that the giant lily pad was rumored to grow as fast as an inch per hour, the heated race took more than a dozen years.
In The Flower Of Empire: An Amazonian Water Lily, the Quest to Make it Bloom, and the World it Created, Tatiana Holway traces the journey of the giant Victoria water lily from the queen of the jungle to a symbol for the British Queen. People could not get enough of the lily. It blossomed into a popular design among artists and tastemakers who created hundreds of products celebrating its image.
1801: Tadeas Haenke discovered the Victoria amazonica with a six-foot wide lily pad. The world was not yet ready to embrace the giant plant.
1837: Sir Richard Schomburgk was agog at the sight of the leaves ranging five- to six-feet in diameter, with broad rims, light green above and crimson below. They floated on top of the water like so many “tea trays.” Some of the flowers were cupped, just beginning to open, the hundreds of pure gleaming white petals straining from prickly poppy-like buds.
October 1837: Acclaimed botanist John Lindley identified the mysterious “vegetable wonder” as a new genus named Victoria regia, the Queen of Aquatics, after the new British queen.
1846-1848: Over the next few years, explorers made several attempts to bring the seeds of the giant Victoria water lily back to England. Thomas Bridges sent 25 seeds packed in a jar of wet clay. Three germinated but did not survive the winter.
February 1849: A new batch of seeds arrived at Kew Gardens. These resulted in six plants by the end of March. By summer, the number grew to fifty. Still, the plants refused to bloom at Kew gardens, which were in a state of disrepair.
Enter Joseph Paxton: He was the head gardener for the sixth Duke of Devonshire at Chatsworth House in Derbyshire–considered one of the finest gardens in its day. Early on in his work at Chatsworth, Paxton had begun experimenting on designs that resulted in the Great Conservatory, a forerunner of modern greenhouses. (He also became known for cultivating the Cavendish banana, which is the most consumed in the world. Bananas were finally introduced to the United States at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition in 1876.)
August 3, 1849: Joseph Paxton brought a tiny Victoria home to Chatsworth. Having made arrangements with Kew to obtain one plant, he arrived 4:30 in the morning to personally oversee the packing of his new adoptee. The largest leaf measured only five and a half inches across. Paxton carefully held the plant on his lap all the way back to Chatsworth.
In preparation for the seedlings from Kew, Paxton had built a twelve-foot square heated tank with five cartloads of soil in his greenhouse. Using water wheels of his own design and coal-fired boilers for heat, he emulated the hot, swampy environment of the lily’s natural habitat in the Amazon.
The lily pads soon grew at an alarming pace, just as Schomburgk had witnessed on the Amazon tributaries.
October 1, 1849: One leaf of the lily measured approximately four feet across. The Duke famously placed Paxton’s seven-year-old daughter Annie on one of the leaves to demonstrate its strength. The Illustrated London News published the sensationally illustrated article and the lily was in the news.
November 2: The Chatsworth lily produced a bud. Paxton wrote to his employer, announcing the news:
“Victoria has Shewn flower! No account can give a fair idea of the grandeur of its appearance….the last leaf of Victoria is 4 feet 8 and a half inches in diameter which is within 3 inches of the size described by Schomburgk.’
News of the blossom spread quickly. The first flower was presented to its namesake, Queen Victoria.
Holway recounts the moment of Queen Victoria’s arrival at Chatsworth:
“Illuminated at dusk by 14,000 oil lamps, the Great Stove was the first stop on a royal progress through the grounds. From afar, it looked like ‘a huge diadem of crystal.’ From the middle-distance, it was radiant, palatial. As Her Majesty and her retinue approached, the doors swung open, an orchestra struck up ‘God Save the Queen,’ and the carriages were ushered in to promenade slowly along the main avenue inside. […] Paxton was ‘a very clever man,’ the Queen later wrote in her diary, ‘quite a genius.’”
“On that first evening, and on all first-night blooms thereafter, a faint blush became perceptible as the myriad dewy petals unfurled. As they spread open, a luscious perfume filled the air, intoxicating the spectators. Then, as the miracle continued, the petals folded inward in the early hours of the morning and remained closed until the evening, when the flowers reopened, its color deepening to a warm rose, its centre lifting in a crown of gold.”
September 1850: The giant Victoria water lily had produced 112 flower buds and 140 great leaves. It had outgrown Paxton’s original incubator tank twice. For the new Lily House, Paxton studied the structure of the leaf whose understructure was a perfect example of natural engineering.
The “cantilevered” ribs radiating from the central stem were nearly two inches deep. Those were supported by large bottom flanges with very thin mid-ribs. “Cross girders” between the ribs prevented buckling.
Later Paxton said: “Nature has provided the leaf with longitudinal and transverse girders and supports that I, borrowing from it, have adopted in this building.”
Joseph Paxton had a secret weapon in the race for the first bloom. He was a young protégé gardener, Eduard Ortgies. Under his magic touch, the lily bloomed in short order. Such an extraordinary story went viral among horticulturalists across Europe. Ortgies was soon stolen away from Chatsworth by the famous Belgian horticulturist Louis Van Houtte who worked for king Leopold of Belgium.
September 1850: In just a matter of months Ortgies magic produced blossoms in a glasshouse constructed especially for it in the Brussels Botanic Gardens. To this day, the lily remains a favorite stop for visitors even when it is not in bloom.
Horticulturists around the world vied for their chance to coax a blossom out of the regia Amazonica.
1851: The first plant in the United States flowered in Caleb Cope’s garden in Springbrook, Pennsylvania.
1852: John F. Allen of Salem Massachusetts grew plants from Cope’s seeds. Allen’s plants lived for four years, producing more than 200 blossoms.
1868: According to the garden clinic, when Victoria amazonica bloomed in the South Australian Botanic Gardens in 1868, newspapers ran hour-by-hour updates.
With Britain enjoying prosperity and relative peace, Prince Albert wanted to create the largest exhibition in history to show the range of technological and aesthetic innovations from around the world. (Not to mention, he wanted to top the French exhibition of 1844.) In 1850 he and Queen Victoria in tandem with Henry Cole, established the Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851.
It soon became clear to the Commission that a hall of standard construction would be time consuming and costly to build. Instead, Prince Albert and Henry Cole engaged Joseph Paxton. In nine days he sketched a vision that was quickly approved by the commission.
As with his Lily House at Chatsworth, Paxton’s world renowned design was based largely on the structure of the giant Victoria water lily. The Crystal Palace for the Great Exhibition of 1851 incorporated cast-iron frame and sheet-glass technologies emerging from the Industrial Revolution. It was the largest building of its day–three times larger than St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. It was considered a masterpiece, both of architecture and engineering, thanks to the structure of the giant Victoria water lily.
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