Ian Duggan

Giant water lilies have appeared in the news recently with the description last year of a new species, Victoria boliviana – the Bolivian waterlily – recognised by Guinness World Records for possessing the world’s largest waterlily leaf, with a diameter of a little over three metres.

The genus Victoria was coined in 1837 by John Lindley, professor of natural history at the University of London and a secretary of the Horticultural Society of London, in a description based on specimens of the giant Amazon waterlily collected in British Guiana (now Guyana) by German-born explorer Robert Schomburgk. The genus was named after the new Queen of the British Empire, Victoria, with the description published in the year of her accession to the throne. It was accordingly given the name of ‘Victoria regia’.

To put a slight spanner in the works, however, an earlier description of the species had already been made, in 1832 by German botanist Eduard Friedrich Poeppig, where it was placed within the genus Euryale, under the name Euryale amazonica. It was first included in this genus due to its perceived similarity to Euryale ferox, the ‘prickly waterlily’, a water lily found in southern and eastern Asia. While it was correctly appreciated by Lindley that the species should be classified in a new genus, and not within the Euryale, nomenclatural rules dictated the species should be correctly named Victoria amazonica, using the original species designation, and using the new genus name. Nevertheless, the name Victoria regia remained entrenched within the literature for many years.

Postcard. Victoria regia, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. Date and Photographer unknown. Duggan collection.

How aware of Victoria were New Zealanders?

The first mentions of giant water lilies in New Zealand newspapers came in the early 1850s, regarding English specimens[i]. “The Victoria Regia water-lily continues flowering beautifully in the open pond at Messrs Week’s nursery, King’s Road, Chelsea. The whole plant has a gigantic appearance, having twenty leaves, each leaf twenty feet in circumference, and the foot stalks thirteen feet in length.”[ii]

A few years later, reports began arriving from closer to home, in Australia.

Firstly, “An amateur florist in Ballarat”, reported the Nelson Examiner and New Zealand Chronicle via the Tribune in 1862, “has succeeded in raising three plants of the Victoria Regia from seed. As soon as the house they are in is finished, and the plants large enough, it is the intention of the grower to exhibit them.”[iii] Nothing more was reported from Ballarat, however. From 1868 through to 1893, a theme emerged of the progress of the plants at Adelaide Botanic Gardens. In October 1868 it was reported that “Among the sights to be seen in the Botanical Gardens at Adelaide, is a gigantic Victoria Regia water-lily. The Advertiser states that it was planted on the 23rd July last, and from a small root, throwing out a single leaf six inches in diameter, it has spread over almost the whole extent of the aquarium, about 40 feet by 30 [9 by 12 metres]. The leaves are round, and some of them four feet [or 1.2 m] in diameter. The stalks are very lengthy, and the leaves do not crowd upon each other, but each floats on the surface of the water, with a clear space separating it from any other leave”.[iv] A few days later it was noted it was just coming into bloom.”[v] In November, “The Victoria Regia has proved a great attraction to the Botanic Gardens, and over 30,000 persons have visited it since it came into bloom.”[vi] For those following the news of the Adelaide Victoria, disappointment – and perhaps some confusion – would have been felt in August 1870, when it was reported that “Serious depredations have taken place from the Victoria Regia house, at the Botanical Gardens. The house will, consequently, have to be closed to the public, except on certain days”.[vii] Whatever happened, the lilies were still to be seen. A correspondent in September 1871 described the scene, with “a large hot-house full of beautiful tropical plants, with a Victoria regia floating in the centre, the leaves of which were as round as a dinner plate and fully four times as large”[viii] Disaster struck in late 1874, however, when a single line was reported in at least five separate New Zealand newspapers, stating in truly Australian style: “The Victoria Regia in the Botanic Gardens has been destroyed by larrikins.”[ix] All was not lost for Adelaide, however, as in 1893 it was noted that “several magnificent blooms of the Victoria Regia have been on view to visitors of late. One of the staff had the idea of testing the carrying capacity of one of the large floating leaves, and a little girl of nine years of age was placed upon the miniature raft in a sitting position. A photograph was taken of the interesting incident”.[x]

This report leads us to the second theme from overseas reports, the buoyancy of the leaves, and a fascination with the number of people they could support. Preceding this Australian report, in 1870, “Mr. Wm. Sowerby, of the Botanic Gardens, Regent’s Park [England], gives… a very curious and instructive account of what is termed a natural lifeboat — that is, the leaf of the gigantic Victoria regia, which he says he was able to load — and is still floated — to the great weight of 426 lbs [= 193 kg]. He believes that, with care, it could be made to float a number of persons”.[xi] In 1896 William’s son James Bryant Sowerby was in the news for similar reasons; “A curious personal experience has been that of Mr J. B. Sowerby, the assistant secretary of the Royal Botanical Society, London. Recently he sat on one of the floating leaves of the Victoria Regia water lily for a considerable time, without causing it to sink appreciably, ‘thus supporting a weight of 150lb’ [68 kg]”[xii] Elsewhere, in 1876, it was reported that “The leaves of the gigantic waterlily, known as the Victoria Regia, in the Botanic-garden at Ghent [Belgium], having attained a remarkably large size, Mr Van Hulle, the chief gardener, recently undertook to determine their buoyant power. One leaf easily supported a child, and did not sink under a man. Mr Van Hulle then heaped bricks over its entire area, and found that before the leaf became submerged a weight of 761 lb [345 kg] was floated.”[xiii]

Another theme was that of the association of Victoria with the freshwater jellyfish, Craspedacusta sowerbii, which was named in honour of J.B. Sowerby. In 1880 it was noted that “A new freshwater jellyfish (Medusa) has been discovered in England by Mr. Sowerby, Secretary of the Botanical Society. It is very abundant in the lily-house in Regent’s Park, London, in the warm water tank devoted to the cultivation of the Victoria regia. The largest specimens are nearly half an inch in transverse diameter.”[xiv] A few years later, it appeared in association with the plant again in another set of gardens: “much interest was aroused by the discovery of a fresh-water Medusa, or jelly fish, in the water tank devoted to the ‘Victoria regia’ lily in the Botanic Gardens, London. No one knew whence the interesting little stranger came, and after a short time it disappeared. For three years nothing has been seen of it; but suddenly it has reappeared, not in London, but at the Botanic Gardens, Sheffield, in a tank containing the ‘Victoria regia’. Certain water plants had been sent from London to the Sheffield Gardens in April 1892, and again a year later, so that the ‘infection’ from one tank to the other is fully accounted for.”[xv] Fast forward to 1929, when they were recorded again in their initial site of English discovery; “They were first observed in 1880 and their appearance was a mystery. For three years they inhabited the tank, and then, in 1883, they disappeared as suddenly as they had come. It was though at first that the draining of the tank for six months in the year explained the mystery, for no jellyfish like being out of water. Now, after an absence of forty-five years, the jelly fish are once more swimming in the tank in which they were first found”[xvi]. Seemingly unaware of the Sheffield report, it was noted: “This family of jelly fish has never been found at any other place except Regent’s Park.”[xvii] This jellyfish was first recorded in New Zealand in 1956, firstly from Lake Taupo, and then later that year in Lake Tarawera. While now widely distributed in New Zealand, it has seemingly not been recorded in association with giant water lilies.

Craspedacusta sowerbii, a global invader originating from China (Barry O’Brien, The University of Waikato, photo)

But what about Victoria in New Zealand?

The first hint of the introduction of giant water lilies into New Zealand was in 1867, with a curious denial by a supposed importer: H.C. Field, Esq., of Wanganui, stated that “it was a mistake about him having imported the Victoria Regia, but that he had made several unsuccessful attempts to import the English water lily.”[xviii] The first likely introduction was reported a few years later, in the New Zealand Herald in 1872: “Those who have seen that magnificent water plant the Victoria Regia Lily in the full bloom of health and beauty, will be glad to learn that the seed has been imported into New Zealand. A Hawkes Bay contemporary says: We learn that a packet of seeds of the Victoria Regia was brought down by Mr. Bryant in the Star of the South. These seeds are to be sent to Taupo, to be planted in the most favourable pools. The seeds were obtained by the Agent General from Kew gardens. We sincerely hope that this effort at acclimatization may be successful. The introduction of the plant will not be of any practical benefit, but as perhaps the most magnificent of the water lilies it is well worth the trouble of introducing it if only for ornamental purposes”. The Auckland newspaper continued, “Might not our society endeavour to procure seeds and make a trial with them in some of our neighbouring freshwater lakes?”.[xix]

Nothing seemed to come from the Taupo introduction, and the possibility of further importations were not reported until around 60 years later. The Timaru Herald in 1931 noted an offer of the water lily to Timaru Botanic Gardens: “The curator reported as follows:—’I am attaching letters from Mr H. H. Brown in connection with seeds of Victoria regia, and will be pleased to know what I am to do in connection with the matter. — My own opinion is that to accommodate such plants in Timaru at the present time would be very expensive, and rather ahead of the times.’— It was resolved to recommend that the offer be not accepted, but that the seeds be offered to other towns with hothouse and tank accommodation.”[xx]

In 1934 it was hoped that Christchurch Botanic Gardens would receive seeds from Germany: That year they received a large consignment of seeds of hardy trees and shrubs from the Arnold Arboretum [at Harvard University], in the USA, most not yet in cultivation in the country, forwarded on request and in exchange seeds of New Zealand plants would be sent. It was the intention of the curator of the gardens Mr McPherson, to build up the policy of such exchanges over the following twelve months. McPherson was hoping for specimens of the New Zealand sundew, which he hoped members of mountaineering clubs might be able to help procure; “The seeds are wanted to carry out an exchange with the German Botanic Gardens. It is the intention of the German authorities to send specimens of the hardy variety of the giant waterlily, Victoria Regia which has its home in the Amazon River, South America. The leaves are large enough to bear the weight of a small child.”[xxi] Nothing apparently came of this hope.

“Victoria regia, The Giant Water-Lily of the Amazon. Their leaves can support the weight of a child, being upward of ten feet in diameter”. Star (Christchurch), 19 January 1929, P 21 (Supplement)

Around 100 years after the first reports in New Zealand newspapers, and a number of false starts, the Giant Water lily was finally grown in New Zealand. In 1950 it was reported that “Victoria Regia, a giant Amazon water lily, is being grown in Auckland from seed brought from Kew Gardens, London. The seed of Victoria Regia has germinated before in New Zealand, but has never reached maturity. This seed, brought out by the new assistant director of the city, parks department, Mr. George Dean, is being carefully nursed in a heated tank in one of the propagating houses. The leaves reach a diameter of 7ft. [= 2 m], with edges which turn up 4in. to 6in. [10-15 cm]”. The report was sure to add, “They are strong enough to bear the weight of a small child”.[xxii]

As might be expected, the plants proved popular. In January 1951, a “crowd estimated at between 15,000 and 20,000 filed into the Auckland Domain tropical house to see the giant water lily Victoria regina flower at the week-end. The lily, which is the first of its kind to be successfully germinated in New Zealand, started to open at 6.30 p.m. on Saturday and continued to develop throughout the night and Sunday. It was estimated by one of the attendants that an average of 150 people entered the house every five minutes between 1.30 p.m. and 7.30 p.m. on Sunday and between 4.30 p.m. and dusk on Saturday.”[xxiii] It is interesting to note the incorrect spelling here, with the plant noted as “Victoria regina” rather than “Victoria regia”, a mistake that has not been uncommon through time.

More of the country got to experience the plant in 1953. “A leaf of the Victoria Regia lily which is growing in the tropical house of the Auckland Domain has been sent to Wellington as an exhibit at the national flower show. It was six feet [1.8 m] across, and was sent by air freight. Special packing was required to ensure that the leaf arrived in good condition. It was covered with a sheet of burlap and damp moss, and then rolled in thick building paper. This container, which had a diameter of about 14 inches [=36 cm], was reinforced with battens. The parcel weighed 56 lb [25.4 kg]. The Victoria Regia lily in the domain is the only plant of its kind in the Dominion. A leaf had not previously been sent by the Auckland City Parks Department to another city”.[xxiv]

Postcard: “Domain Tropical House, Winter Gardens, Auckland”. “On the pond in the picture is the rare giant Amazonian lily, Victoria Regia”. G.B. Scott Publications, Auckland. Date unknown. Duggan collection.

Auckland Domain continued to grow the plants. In 1954, the process of moving the plant from the Domain nursey to the Winter Garden glass houses was detailed: “The biggest water lily in New Zealand, the Auckland City Council’s Victoria Regia, has been transplanted. About 12 months old, it was carried in a wheelbarrow from the Domain nursery to the tropical house in the winter gardens. Five gardeners, supervised by the council’s horticultural adviser (Mr G. F. Fillmore), were needed for the job. A native of the Amazon river area, the lily will be grown in water heated to between 75 and 85 degrees Fahrenheit [24-29 C). It was wrapped in to keep it warm on the short journey from the nursery to the tropical house. The plant is the fourth to be grown in Auckland. It now has four leaves each about 15 inches across. Last year’s lily grew 18 flowers and 43 leaves. The flowers are pure white when they open in the evening and change to a beautiful pink the next day. They last for a day”.[xxv] They were sure to note, of course, that “By Christmas the leaves should be more than six feet in diameter and strong enough to support a small child”.

Year by year, the water lily continued to provide an attraction. In January 1955, “Nearly 4000 visitors watched the season’s first flower of the giant South American Victoria regia water lily passing through the last stages of its two-day life cycle in the Domain winter gardens yesterday. They were still coming after nightfall, and the tropical house, lit for the occasion, was kept open until late. The bloom went through a remarkable transformation in colour and shape. It was pure white when it opened at 6.15 p.m. on Sunday, and the outer petals remained cupped during the night. Yesterday the petals dropped down to water level. At 3 p.m. a faint pink tinge began to appear at the base of the flower and slowly seeped through the petals, deepening all the while. At 6.10 p.m. the inner cone of small petals began to open. At 7 o’clock the drooping petals were old rose, and the cone at the top a duller red.

This morning the flower dropped down under the water, where the seed will ripen before floating to the surface.

A second bud bobbed to the surface of the pond yesterday. It appears to be a poorer specimen, and the gardeners may decide to remove it. Last year’s plant produced a flower about once every four days. Two dozen persons were waiting for the tropical house to open at 8 a.m. yesterday. Throughout the day there was an average of 60 grouped round the lily pond.”[xxvi]

For a number of years, blooms were a regular event, with some exceptions. In 1960, it was noted that: “It became an annual attraction until two years ago, when continuous alterations to the tropical house made its care too difficult”. However, “If all goes well, the giant South American waterlily Victoria regia will bloom again in the Auckland Domain winter gardens this season. Seed now on its way to Auckland from the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, London, will be sown in the tropical nursery at the Domain as soon as it arrives. A plant may be ready for shifting to the central pond about mid October.”[xxvii] Flowering was apparently unsuccessful, however.

In 1961, it was noted – finally using the species’ correct name – that “A seedling of the giant Amazon lily (Victoria amazonica) has been raised in the Auckland Domain nursery. It will be planted in the pond at the tropical house next month, and if it does well its short-lived but spectacular flowering cycle should take place at the end of December or in January.”[xxviii] This attempt was successful, with reports from February 1962 noting that “the giant Amazon water lily (Victoria regina amazonica) flowered on Sunday night for the first season since 1955… The creamy white petals of the first bud unfolded shortly before 7 p.m. As the flowering cycle of the nocturnal flower lasts only two days—the petals turn a deep pink on the second day—the garden was kept open until 9 pm to allow visitors to see the lily”. Interestingly, it was also noted that “This year’s plant is the first to be grown from seed raised in New Zealand”.[xxix]



[i] The Exhibition of 1851. New Zealander, 2 April 1851, P 2

[ii] Lyttleton Times, 14 February 1852, P 5

[iii] Victoria. Nelson Examiner and New Zealand Chronicle, 29 January 1862, P 3

[iv] Otago Daily Times, 5 October 1868, P 5

[v] Australian Telegrams. New Zealand Herald, 13 October, P 7

[vi] Australian Telegrams. Daily Southern Cross, 14 November 1868, P 6

[vii] Latest Australian News, West Coast Times, 13 August 1870, P 2

[viii] Notes by the Way. Lyttleton Times, 25 September 1871, P 3

[ix] Intercolonial News. New Zealand Times, 3 November 1874, P 3

[x] Colonist, 27 May 1893, P 4

[xi] General News. Tuapeka Times, 12 February 1870, P 3

[xii] Otago Witness, 5 March 1896, P 63

[xiii] Southland Times, 10 May 1876, P 3

[xiv] New Zealand Herald, 18 December 1880, P 3

[xv] Science Notes. Otago Witness, 10 May 1894, P 48

[xvi] Science Notes. Western Star, 5 March 1929, P 3

[xvii] Ibid.

[xviii] Acclimitization Society. Press, 27 April 1867, P 3

[xix] New Zealand Herald, 24 July 1872, P 2

[xx] Timaru Herald, 10 November 1931, P 8

[xxi] Botanic Gardens. Star (Christchurch), 12 January 1934, P 10

[xxii] Gisborne Herald, 26 August 1950, P 6

[xxiii] Press, 23 January 1951, P 6

[xxiv] Press, 11 February 1953, P 8

[xxv] Five Men Move Water Lily. Press, 23 October 1954, P 9

[xxvi] 4000 Visitors Watch Giant Water Lily Turn Red. Press, January 1955, P 8

[xxvii] South American Waterlily. Press, 8 July 1960, P 18

[xxviii] Press, 8 September 1961, P 12

[xxix] Water Lily in Flower. Press, 8 February 1962, P 10

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