The following article is provided by Mike Stephenson, Beaverton, Oregon, USA

1885, XV, p. 143-146

The Victoria Regia
Historical Reminiscences



It was our privilege to see this queen of the water lilies in bloom at Kew Gardens, England, October, 1878. There was a display of water lilies from all parts of the world, in every witchery of form, color and odor- pure white, soft rose-tinted and deep pink, and the loveliest blue. But the most entrancing for form, color, size, and fragrance was the Victoria. She shone, indeed as the empress of the entire floral dominion.

The present generation cannot realize the interest taken in-this superb plant nearly forty years ago - the intense desire to get specimens to Europe, the great efforts, and the provoking failures. Even the seed would refuse to germinate. At last, it was taken over the sea in its native water, and painful care was had as to temperature - even periodical agitations of the fluid, as if to deceive the coy embryo into the idea of the flowing of its natal stream. When success was attained, it was accounted among the florists of the world as "the big thing of the age." But the conditions of success were so costly, a glass house, a tank of thirty feet diameter, and the water steadily kept up to eighty degrees temperature; private means, unless munificent, could not suffice.

The leaves of the plant are six feet in diameter; they are green above and red underneath, suggestive of the color habit of the foliage of the Begonias, especially B. sanguinea, though it should be said that, as a rule, the water lilies have the underside of their leaves of a liver-red, or purplish. These gigantic lily leaves, speaking popularly, are, when full grown, round, and, with the edge turned up two inches or more, look like immense floating tea trays. Large aquatic birds stand on them by the hour; watching' for fish to pass by. But those great leaves are ribbed in a most ingenious' way, imparting immense strength; so that with a board properly arranged to distribute the pressure, a prodigious weight can be borne. I have some notes which I think were made some thirty years ago, from. which we will extract, though the figures seem incredible. It was stated in Science Dour Tons, that in the aquarium of the botanical garden at Ghent, the head gardener, M. van Houtte, was interested to learn the force required to immerse one of the floating leaves in the water. One leaf supported a child; another was not submerged by the weight of one of the gardeners. He was led to experiment as to the limit of this resistance loading the surface of one of the largest leaves with bricks. It was found to bear a weight of 760 pounds avoirdupois - that is to say, nearly equal to five men of average weight.

The first successful effort to bring the Victoria regia into bloom in England was in the world-famous botanical gardens of the Duke of Devonshire, at Chatsworth House, Joseph Paxton, the duke's head gardener, constructed the great glass house for its accommodation, which took the name of its gorgeous occupant. The hint for the construction of this fairy-like building was derived from a study of the structure of the Victoria's leaf.

We may, in passing, say that Mr. Paxton designed the Crystal Palace for the World's Fair in England, 1851, built chiefly of glass and- iron, all being primarily due to his study of the leaf mentioned. For this achievement he was knighted, and thus became Sir Joseph Paxton.

The first flower of Victoria regia in England, was in November, 1849. The event brought together a distinguished concourse of visitors of the nobility and literati. A novel event was the appearance, on the occasion, of little Miss Annie Paxton, who, dressed in costume of a fairy, took her place in one of the tray-like leaves, and, like a Naiad of the waters, presided as the fairy guardian of this beautiful floral queen. Such an event could not be less than inspiring; accordingly the muse of the famous Douglas W. Jerrold produced the following:

"On unbent leaf, in fairy guise
Reflected in the water,
Beloved, admired by heart and eyes,
Stands Annie, Paxton's daughter.

Accept a wish, my little maid,
Begotten at the minute,
That scenes so bright may never fade,
You still the fairy in it.

That all your life, nor care, nor grief
May load the winged hours
With weight to bend a lily's leaf,
But all around be flowers."

It will astonish some to be told that the Victoria regia was made to flower in a tank in the open air by Mr. E. D. Sturtevant, at Bordentown, N. J., last August, the water being kept at its right temperature by pipes. I was one of a small party invited to witness the event, but was far away at the time. An enthusiastic friend wrote me about it, and what follows is mainly from his letter: At the first visit the leaves were six feet across, with a rim about two inches high, and a bud just visible in the depths. It was expected to bloom in two weeks, and we intended to go again with yourself, Mrs. Treat, and others. Alas! the bud shot up with almost visible rapidity, and bloomed on Sunday evening. I saw it at its second opening, when it was somewhat the worse. At its first opening, the flower rested on the water, a pure white blossom a foot in diameter, and filled the air with a delicious pine-apple perfume; at its second, it. was raised above the surface, the petals had become a pale rose, and were strongly reflexed, while the perfume was entirely gone. The stamens were a deep rose color, and folded down, so as to completely cover the stigma, etc. On this second evening, a strange event took place, which we unfortunately did not see, as we had to go to the train, but which was communicated by those. who did see it. "About half-past seven P. M. the stamens suddenly lifted themselves, and with quite a perceptible jerk shook a mass of pollen down on the stigma. It seems hardly credible, but it is true; this Victoria had produced four great leaves, with another partly unrolled, and had bloomed, all from a plant six inches high, with one small leaf, in just four months. One would think that the forming of its cells ought to be visible with a hand lens.

To give completeness to this little sketch, let me quote from the American Cyclopoedia: "The flower is of two days' duration. The first day it opens about 6 P. M., and remains open until about the same hour next morning; in this stage it is cup-shaped, twelve to sixteen inches across, with numerous pure white petals, and emits a delightful fragrance. The second evening, the flower opens again, but it presents an entirely different appearance; the petals are now of a rosy-pink color, and reflexed, or bent downward from the center, to form a handsome coronet, but now without odor; the flower closes toward morning, and during the day it sinks beneath the surface to ripen the seed. - Prof. Samuel Lockwood in The Canadian Horticulturist.

A Short History of Victoria 

by John Fisk Allen, with illustrations by William Sharp 1854

 Historical Articles provided by Mike Stephenson

 Victoria Regia
The Gardeners' Chronicle 1850

The Victoria Regia - Historical Reminiscences
Wisconsin State Horticultural Society 1885 

 Plant Notes. The Victoria Regia
Garden and Forest 1888

Off-site Historical Articles of Special Interest

 Crystal Palaces For Plants

 Joseph Paxton's Water Lily
 Sir Joseph Paxton (1801 - 1865)

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