The Victoria Adventure
and Observations at the
U.S. National Arboretum
Washington, D.C.
2001, 2002 and 2003
By Mark McGuiness
With Kit Knotts
Click images to enlarge

2001 - Setting the Table

In 1999 and 2000, Joe Summers at the Missouri Botanical Garden graciously sent us Victoria plants to grow and display. Quite content with this arrangement, I again asked Joe if he could supply plants for 2001. He indicated it was unclear if he would have enough plants and suggested I contact the Victoria Conservatory to obtain seeds. So, 2001 was my first attempt at growing plants from seed. I did not have a lot of time and resources available - but gave it a go. Germination results. My first attempt resulted in only producing 2 Victorias for display in the pool that year. However, my "addiction" had begun! (And fortunately, Joe was able to supply us with an additional 4 plants).

The following article seems to appropriately summarize the success of our 2001 Victoria display at the arboretum. It was the first year we were able to grow and display plants over a large area of the arboretum's pool surface. This was due to a new underwater circulation system added the previous winter, which allowed us to turn off many of the 26 fountainheads in the pool and create large expanses of open water.

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 building.

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).

Among 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.

The 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 as large.

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 ensure pollination.

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 to flourish.

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 quickly.

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.

Reproduced with permission of the copyright owner. Further reproduction or distribution is prohibited without permission. 

2002 - Full Circle: From Seed to End of Season >
2003 - Not Expecting the Unexpected >

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