The First Hybrid Waterlilies

By Kit Knotts - Click images to enlarge

Though the introduction of species from the wild into cultivation played a major role in the development of water gardening, it was the hybridization of waterlilies that, with breathtaking new colors and forms, captured the fancy of more and more people.

Where it seemed at first that early hybrids and hybridizers were random and isolated from one another, we have learned that they were hugely intertwined. Much of this is well documented but there are gaps. Where possible, original documents are linked through this text in their original languages and in English. To set the stage, many species of waterlilies were in cultivation in Europe in the first half of the nineteenth century but it took Victoria to literally light the fire of water gardening.

Victoria first flowered in a specially built glass house with a heated pond in 1849 at Chatsworth, the estate of the Duke of Devonshire. Head gardener was the famed Joseph Paxton. The person entrusted by Paxton with the care of Victoria was a young German gardener Eduard Ortgies.

Belgian plant collector and nurseryman Louis Van Houtte greatly wanted to be the first person on the Continent to grow Victoria and arranged with Paxton for Ortgies to go to his employ in Belgium, taking with him one of only four Victoria seedlings produced from seeds of the Chatsworth plant. Another special glass house was constructed for Victoria at the Van Houtte Nursery in Gent. The warm water in both places allowed for Victoria to be accompanied in her display by other "tender" (tropical) waterlilies.

Joseph Paxton claimed the first waterlily hybrid that bloomed for the first time in 1851. It was a tropical night bloomer named N. 'Devoniensis' in honor of his employer, the Duke of Devonshire. It was said to be a cross between N. rubra and N. lotus, but since Hooker and Thomson stated that just such a form of N. rubra could be found in India, N. 'Devoniensis' was regarded by many as the result of self-pollination of N. rubra. In reading the article about it from Paxton's Flower Garden, it seems most likely that it was a chance seedling, creating more doubt that it was a hybrid.

The first certain hybrid was N. 'Ortgiesiano-rubra', the cross-pollination carefully performed and well documented by Ortgies at the Van Houtte Nursery. French botanist Jules Emile Planchon, who had been at Gent as a teacher at the Institute of Horticulture in 1849 and 1850, provided the first description of 'Ortgiesiano-rubra' published in Van Houtte's Flore des Serres et des jardins de l'Europe, Volume 8, 1852-1853 (French - English). This was also a tropical night bloomer, intermediate in characteristics between parents N. Ortgiesiana (thought to be different from N. dentata) and N. rubra.

In a footnote to this article, Planchon chided John Lindley, who published descriptions of N. 'Devoniensis' in Gardener's Chronicle (July. 10, 1852) and in Paxton's Flower Garden (III, 124, T 98), among others, about making the claim of hybridity only after Ortgies' hybrid was displayed by Van Houtte at Chiswick in 1852, about naming it in a form considered improper at the time and about incomplete information on the creation of the "hybrid".

Ortgies went on to attempt other Nymphaea crosses at the Van Houtte Nursery, detailed in Planchon's article, but we find no reports of the results. In 1855 Ortgies left Belgium to become Chief Gardener at the Botanic Garden of Zurich. He remained there until his retirement in 1894 but no mention is made of further work with waterlilies.

There seems to be little question that Ortgies developed or perfected the technique for successful hybridizing of water lilies and this is described in detail by Planchon. No secrecy surrounded it, an important fact for those who would follow. Hybrids of many plants were being created throughout Europe in those years and the methods differed little.

The torch then seems to have passed to Claude Bouché, Inspector of the Berlin Botanic Garden. Bouché also had warm water available, this time outdoors, in the garden of Borsig, owner of an adjacent iron factory, the warm water effluent from which was piped to his ponds. Bouché was obviously acquainted with Van Houtte and Ortgies, possibly having visited the nursery in Belgium, learning how to hybridize.

He too created tropical night blooming hybrids, all in 1852 and 1853, 16 of them named. Seven of them were the result of pollination of N. rubra with pollen of N. lotus, while the rest were pollinations of the resulting hybrids with pollen of N. lotus. The best known of these was N. 'Boucheana', first described by Planchon in Flore des Serres et des jardins de l'Europe, Volume 10, 1855. One might wonder how seven different hybrids could be created from the same cross of two species but we propose that N. rubra was capable of producing varying shades. Descriptions of all 16 can be found in "The Bouché Nymphaea Hybrids" (German - English) by Professor Dr. Karl Koch, published in Allgemeine Gartenzeitung, No. 35, 1857.

Henry S. Conard wrote in The Waterlilies, Chapter VII, "N. kewensis was next to appear. It was published in Gardeners' Chronicle in 1887 (p. 366), and in Botanical Magazine in April, 1888 (tab. 6988). The cross was made at Kew in 1885 by Mr. Watson, with N. lotus as seed parent and pollen of N. devoniensis. The hybrid has a large number of broad petals of an even rosy pink all over; the stamens are orange colored; the leaves are pure dark green above."

Though all of the above hybrids have been lost to cultivation, probably because of their need for warm water, their historical significance is beyond question. For us, a big question is: why, when many day blooming hardy and tropical species were in cultivation, did no one try crossing them within the same subgenus? Lindley wrote of an attempted cross of N. scutifolia (= N. capensis) and N. alba with no result reported. Ortgies tried crossing day blooming species with tropical night blooming species, reported obtaining seeds and seedlings but not resulting plants to prove the crosses. In the article about Bouché's hybrids, Koch proposed attempting crosses between night bloomers and N. gigantea and even Victoria but it seems nothing more was heard of the ideas. In fact, interest in making hybrids seemed to go dormant.

N. 'Daubenyana' was the possibly the next hybrid, currently shown as first published in 1864, and we don't know if it was a natural hybrid or a form of N. micrantha. If it was a hybrid, it was thought to be a cross of N. caerulea and N. micrantha, day blooming tropicals. It was viviparous and is still in cultivation today (some say not exactly the original). Though several sources say it was a German hybrid, the introducer was William T. Baxter, Curator of Oxford Botanic Gardens in England from 1813 to 1848. It was named for Charles G. B. Daubeny, professor at Oxford University from 1822 to 1855.

In 1851 Dr. Daubeny was in charge of the Botanic Garden at Oxford and visited Chatsworth. He was amazed to see the Victoria grown by Paxton and, determined to grow it in Oxford, he had an enormous tank built at his own expense. Daubeny was confident that he could recoup the money spent on the tank by inviting and charging the public to view this amazing plant. Possibly because of the cost to see it, Victoria did not capture the public imagination and the crowds stayed away. Oxford stopped growing Victoria in 1869 but the tank would have provided Baxter and Daubeny with warm water for growing other tropical aquatics.

We are currently trying to ascertain the accuracy of a publication by R.T. Günther, Oxford Gardens Based Upon Daubeny's Popular Guide To The Physick Garden Of Oxford, 1912, which says N. 'Daubenyana' originated at the Garden about 1851. An article "Nymphæas" by Maxwell Masters, which appeared in The Gardeners' Chronicle, May 24, 1856, indicates that Baxter did not hybridize N. 'Daubenyana' and creates doubt in our minds whether it was a hybrid at all. Even though the name is not mentioned, it does however place its existence in 1856 or earlier.


Berghs, Father J.M. Introduction and translation of "Nymphaea Ortgiesiano-rubra" (French - English) by Jules Emile Planchon. Water Garden Journal, VIII:2, Summer 1992.

Bloxham, Christine. "Consider the lily", Limited Edition, The Online Magazine for Oxfordshire, 2003.

Conard, Henry S. The Waterlilies, A Monograph of the Genus Nymphaea. The Carnegie Institution of Washington. 1905, Chapter VII.

Günther, R.T. Oxford Gardens Based Upon Daubeny's Popular Guide To The Physick Garden Of Oxford, 1912, p. 102-105

Innes, William T. Goldfish Varieties and Water Gardens. Innes Publishing Company, Philadelphia 1947, 1949.

Koch, Professor Dr. Karl. "Die Bouché'schen Nymphäen-Blendlinge im Borsig'schen Garten zu Moabit bei Berlin", (German - English)Allgemeine Gartenzeitung. No. 35 1857.

Lindley, Professor John. "The Duke of Devonshire's Water Lily", Paxton's Flower Garden. Vol. III Pages 129-130. Cassell & Company, Limited. 1884

Masters, Charles O. Encyclopedia of the water-lily. T.F.H. Publications Inc. Ltd., Neptune City, NJ 1974.

Masters, Charles Otto. "The Story of the Water lily" Part 3. Water Garden Journal V:4, December 1989.

Masters, Maxwell. "Nymphæas", The Gardeners' Chronicle. May 24, 1856

Planchon, J. E. "Nymphaea Ortgiesiano-rubra" (French - English). Flore des Serres et des Jardins de l'Europe. Tome VIII, t. 775-776, pp. 67-73. Gand, L. Van Houtte. 1852-1853.

Victoria-Adventure Web Site, Biographies

(No author given) "Eduard Ortgies" (German - English)Gartenflora. 1894, p. 225-229

Part 2 - The French and the Americans >

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