The variety of giant water lily named Victoria appears in early summer as a spectacle worthy of Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Lost World” — mysterious, exotic, almost foreboding in its form and size.
Its leaf pad is typically six feet across (the record is 10 feet or so) and each lily may have 10 pads at any one time, consuming an area 30 feet across. This is not a lily for a regular backyard pond.
More than two centuries after the first Western plant explorers laid eyes on this Amazonian marvel, the Victoria lily continues to evoke wonder.
The leaves emerge as prickly shells and then unfurl at a rate of as much as two feet per day. Fully open, they can support the weight of a lean man, and the undersides are a study in architectural vaulting and in armament. They are covered in spines, apparently to fend off not fish but manatees.
The flowers are enormous and a little bizarre. As full buds, they begin to generate their own heat, and then open to attract pollinating beetles with an irresistible perfume. The lilies start out as female flowers but develop into male flowers on their second night, at which point they have changed in color from white to a rose pink. On their third day, pollinated, they sink to the river bottom to grow seeds that, when mature, float.
All this and more has been chronicled in a new book — “Victoria: The Seductress” — by Longwood’s curator of plants, Tomasz Anisko. One of the reasons he wrote it, he said, was because the last volume in the United States devoted to this plant appeared in the 1850s. Also, Longwood has a long association with the Victoria lily: The plant tops the bill at its lily pool garden. In a cluster of geometric heated ponds, aquatic gardeners assemble a display of Victoria lilies that make the otherwise lavish lotus plants seem demure. You will also find downright beautiful hardy and tropical lily varieties, along with lesser-known aquatic plants.
The central, circular pond is 50 feet across, comfortably accommodating just three Victoria lily plants. The giants are started from seed in late winter and planted in submerged planters at the end of May.
They grow rapidly in the sort of heat and humidity that arrived abruptly last week, but they are aided by the fact the water is heated to a constant 86 degrees. In an unheated pond in these parts, you would see them run out of steam in September with cooling temperatures. At Longwood, in Kennett Square, Pa., the heating system allows robust displays as late as November.
Visitors will find both species: the Amazonian version named Victoria amazonica and its cousin to the south, Victoria cruziana. The former species has leaves that are purple-red beneath, and the latter has higher upturned rims to the leaf pad and is a little smaller and hardier.