From the Amazon, an Amazing Water
Lily: [FINAL Edition]
Adrian Higgins. The Washington Post. Washington, D.C.: Nov 1,
2001. pg. H.06
Copyright The Washington Post Company Nov 1, 2001
Mark McGuiness is gathering up his season's work and with
it memories of a stellar year for a water lily named Victoria.
Raising plants is his job -- McGuiness is curator of the aquatic
collection at the National Arboretum. But his passion for the
world's largest water lily has been shared this year by visitors
to the arboretum's ornamental pool surrounding the administration
The pads are past their prime but still drawing admiration:
McGuiness hopes to keep them on display until at least through
this weekend. Each Victoria lily pad grows up to six feet across.
One plant might have as many as a dozen pads and occupies a space
of at least 15 feet square. McGuiness raised six this year including,
for the first time, every known version of the plant: two species
and two hybrids.
You don't often see these South American beauties around here.
Not only do they need large ponds, but they are not easily propagated.
So their capacity to amaze remains even though they have been
known to Western gardeners since the mid-19th century. They are
named after Queen Victoria. One of her dukes (of Devonshire at
Chatsworth) was so taken by the plant that he had a special pool
house built just to grow and admire it.
McGuiness can empathize.
Regular water lily pads grow to the size of a small plate.
The Victoria lilies grow to the size of a tabletop and can support
small animals. (A lightweight person can stand on the pad if
a thin plywood sheet is laid on top to distribute the weight).
the other differences are a lip at the edge of the pad that rises
up to eight inches high, making the leaf look like a vegetative
pie plate, and unforgiving spines on all surfaces facing the
water, including flower stems and the base of flowers. The last
feature, McGuiness assumes, is to keep fish, reptiles and amphibians
from nibbling the plant and gardeners from handling it.
Risking a jab is worth it to reveal the underside of the leaf,
which is even more striking than the top surface. Here, thick
veins and trusses form a network of green against a purple background.
flowers on such a plant are equally Herculean: Buds the size
of pears emerge and open white, spreading to as much as 18 inches
across. One is hard-pressed to think of any other flower quite
Each bloom lasts two days. On the first evening, the flower
opens a pure white, staying open until the middle of the next
morning. Then it closes and begins to change in color. By the
next nightfall, it opens again, this time a rich rosy purple.
One assumes that if you only have two nights on the town, you
don't want to wear the same gown twice.
In its native habitat of Amazonia, the lily flower attracts
a scarab beetle through its heady scent. The beetle, carrying
pollen from another bloom, is trapped as the flower closes, to
For all its size and oddities, the Victoria lily remains serenely
beautiful. Soon, McGuiness will remove it from the pond, along
with other tropical water plants, including clumps of papyrus.
This is the third year he has grown it in the pond, noted for
its inky black water and huge Japanese koi.
The two species are found in the warm rivers of South America:
the giant water lily (Victoria amazonica) and the Santa Cruz
water lily (Victoria cruziana). There are minor differences between
them -- the lip of the Santa Cruz lily is higher, but the giant
water lily blooms more freely although it needs warmer water
In the 1960s, a horticulturist at Longwood Gardens in Kennett
Square, Pa., developed a cross between the two named Longwood
Hybrid. It is considered better for gardeners in cold climes
such as ours because it has inherited the ability of the Santa
Cruz lily to grow well in cooler conditions.
More recently, other horticulturists, after years of trying,
have produced another hybrid named Adventure.
The key to getting them to reach maximum growth is to start
them early from seed (in heated aquariums in late winter), set
the young plants in a large container, and wait until June 1
to transfer them to an outdoor pond, submerged in a large container.
With Washington's rapidly warming summers, the plants respond
If you want to grow one, you will need a small heated indoor
fish aquarium to start the seed in late February, a large outdoor
pond in full sun (at least 15 feet by 15 feet per plant), a big
container filled with dirt and a gravel mulch, and lots of fertilizer.
They grow so fast that the spectacle of growth is as fascinating
as the plants themselves. The leaves break the surface as curled,
spined packages, reminiscent of chestnut husks, and then begin
to open, spreading at a rate of an inch an hour.
Not surprisingly, such a bountiful plant is a heavy feeder,
but the amount of fertilizer used is startling. Home gardeners
might put two or three solid pellets in their tubs of hardy water
lilies every two or three weeks. But McGuiness feeds each of
his plants (which sit in submerged pots three feet across and
one foot deep) 35 to 40 pellets a week.
With this regimen, he has succeeded in getting some of the
pads to six feet across. But here is a fellow taken by this plant's
powers and potential (eight feet). "Next year, I'm going
to try to go to a bigger container," he said. "I may
try to find a kid's swimming pool- type thing."
The arboretum is at 3501 New York Ave. NE. 202-245-2726. www.usna.usda.gov.
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