How a giant water lily made the modern world

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“The Flower of Empire” by Tatiana Holway, now (appropriately) available at Amazon.co.uk

One of the pleasures of being an Amazon Vine reviewer is that you occasionally stumble upon absolute gems that you would otherwise have missed. I’ve just finished one, and I can’t recommend it highly enough to anyone who enjoys reading about horticulture and the Victorian period.

In 1837, as he struggled upriver in Britain’s only South American colony, severely underfunded by his sponsors the British Geographical Society, the young German explorer Robert Schomburgk found his way blocked by a remarkable plant. A water lily, its leaves several metres across and armed with lethally sharp spines, but adorned with exquisite pale pink, fragrant flowers, clogged the river ahead of him. Since Schomburgk was moonlighting as a plant-hunter to supplement his meagre stipend, he spotted a good thing when he saw it, managed to obtain a specimen and painted this “vegetable wonder.” Then he got on with the job, blissfully unaware that the specimen he’d sent to the coast and the accompanying illustration would create a sensation back home.

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Victoria Amazonica on display at Kew Gardens, England

The specimen was a stinking mess when it reached England, but an accident of timing meant that a young Victoria was about to ascend to the throne. In a culture obsessed with flowers, and almost as potty about the British Empire, it seemed like a “no-brainer” to name this amazing flower after her. This involved a bit of botanical slight-of-hand, particularly when a couple of cheeky Continentals rudely claimed they’d already catalogued the specimen. It was unthinkable to call it Victoria Amazonica – the Amazon women were bare-breasted savage huntresses, for Heaven’s sake. After some wrangling about the Latin and who had the right to the publicity (the Botanical Society, or the Geographical Society who’d paid for the trip but expressly warned Schomburgk against excessive plant-hunting?) , the compromise title Victoria Regia was, more or less, accepted.

"Victoria regia – Opening Flower" Ch...
“Victoria regia – Opening Flower” Chromolithograph from Sir William Jackson Hooker (1785-1865) Victoria regia; or Illustrations of the Royal Water-lily . . . London: Reeve and Benham, 1851 The gigantic water lily from South America, now Victoria amazonica. Chromolithograph, hand-coloured (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Royal assent followed and the race was on to get a specimen to England and persuade it to flower. This was not a trivial task and involved much cutting-edge technology in the glasshouse trade (pardon the pun). The main contenders in the race were the Duke of Devonshire, whose deep pockets funded England’s vastest indoor gardens, the Royal Gardens at Kew, struggling to make a comeback after decades of neglect, and the Duke of Northumberland’s botanical collection (which ultimately became the Royal Horticultural Society). Tatiana Holway pulls off the remarkable feat of making this story so gripping that you might well find yourself staying up too late to see the lily’s first bloom before you go to bed.

But it didn’t stop there. Victoria Regia (or possibly Regina) and the technology invented to make her  bloom did much to shape that crowning showcase of the British Empire, the Great Exhibition. In less skilled hands than Holway’s, these final chapters would be anti-climactic after the race to get a lily flower to the Palace. And indeed, they do feel a little hectic and rushed at times.

But it’s all about chains of connection. Via the Crystal Palace, argues Tatiana, the Amazonian Water Lily shaped our modern world. A startling claim, but reading about the frenzied lead up to the Great Exhibition, the fear of terrorist threat, of crowds of the wrong sort of people making trouble, of vast structures collapsing and the country running out of money, not to mention what on earth to do with the huge building after the party was over, have more than a little of the flavour of London 2012 about them. Spin, PR, ostentatious, overwhelming and occasionally meaningless spectacle and huge events precariously balanced between triumph and farce, are indeed a part of our modern world. And according to Tatiana Holway, the Millennium Dome, the Crystal Palace and every overblown shopping mall can be directly linked to the discovery of a “vegetable wonder” in British Guiana almost 180 years ago.

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