Kate O'Brien, editor of Plant Magazine, on the history of the waterlily - a plant which graced the glassy, still waters of Gep Sagar Lake, the location for our Late Spring shoot.
Waterlily’s reign as ‘Queen of the Aquatics’ in the British pond stems from victorian times, during a period when Queen Victoria herself was a just small princess. In 1837, a monstrous waterlily was plucked from the Amazon basin, buoyed across the ocean on one of Her Majesties ships, and anchored in a custom-built glass house at the Duke of Devonshire’s Chatsworth House. And so began the great quest to make Big Lily bloom, under the stewardship of Sir Joseph Paxman (to whom we owe the cavendish banana).
Bloom she did. First white, then light pink, darkening in 48 hours, changing sex in the middle of the night, attracting pollinators by her pineapple scent. Victoria amazonica captivated a nation and prompted the construction of her own palace. Paxman credited the plant’s architecture and strength for his designs for Crystal Palace, “nature was the engineer” he said, modestly. But there was nothing modest about Big Lily, whose 7 foot spread can still be admired taking over the pond at Waterlily House, Kew, or alternatively online. Victoria amazonica has been much photographed over the years, usually holding a small child at its centre, easily, as if it were a floating bassinet.
Waterlilies have been a symbol of fertility in many cultures since ancient times, nursing mothers were once given lily’s leaves to eat; the Mayan hieroglyphic of the first day lord, links soil and water symbolised by a waterlily monster. While in ancient Egypt the waterlily was regarded as a cosmic creator that cradled the sun, giving birth to a new day. Today the waterlily is the national emblem of Bangladesh, representative of its many flowing rivers.
Words by Kate O'Brien
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