If you’re looking for garden inspiration, a two-hour drive to Longwood Gardens in southeastern Pennsylvania is always a fruitful endeavor.
But there is one plant at Longwood that defies home use, and invites inspection for the sheer joy of seeing one of the wonders of the plant kingdom.
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.
Soon after the original ponds were built at Longwood in the 1950s, its aquatic plant expert, Patrick Nutt, succeeded in crossing the two species to produce a third Victoria lily, Longwood Hybrid, that is even more vigorous than its parents and produces a pad that is not only larger but with a pronounced and colorful rim.
Botanists think the raised edge makes the leaf stronger and also stops one leaf from smothering another. Tiny drainage holes allow the leaf to shed rainwater.
When the Victoria lily made it to Europe in the mid-19th century, its gross and alien beauty caused its champions to build hothouses devoted to its cultivation. Anisko writes at length about the most celebrated hothouse, by Joseph Paxton at Chatsworth in northern England, as well as lavish glass houses in Belgium, Sweden, Russia, Germany, Switzerland and other countries.
Anisko was spurred to write the book after seeing the Victoria lily in its native Guyana in 2005. Encountering it in the sluggish backwaters, “I was able to make sense of its features. It seems like a creature from another reality, but when you see it in its native environment you understand why it’s so big, why the flowers perform the way they do,” he told me. “This is a fantastic story.”
It’s no longer a rare plant — you can buy plants online if you have a farm pond or somewhere to grow it — but it is uncommon. The gardeners at Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens are hoping to grow a Victoria lily this year, as they have in summers past, alongside its Asian counterpart, the Euryale. The Victoria “blooms usually toward the end of August,” said supervisor Doug Rowley.
In a 21st-century world that has been globalized, digitized and homogenized, the Victoria lily still has the capacity to sate a desire for the foreign and mysterious.
“Because of its peculiar requirements, it will never be a plant for the home,’ Anisko said. “So I thought, what about a book that visitors can take home to enjoy the company of this plant?”
The book may not be enough: Do yourself a favor, and set aside a day this summer to see the giant lilies at Longwood.
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