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Victoria amazonica


Marvel of Nature

and source of constant discovery.

Photographs of Cristina Archinto
Text by Cristina Archinto and Carla De Agostini

The Victoria is one of those plants that has always fascinated mankind since its discovery in the western world in the early 1800s; these enormous leaves float despite their size and weight. This is due to a special latticework that traps air in the lower face of the leaf, creating cushions that allow the leaf to support not only its own weight but also that of a child, as evidenced by the first photograph, of a long series, taken in 1932 in Kew Gardens.

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The photo taken in 1932 in Kew Gardens

Victoria is a Nymphaeaceae and it has only recently been discovered that there are not just two but three species; Victoria Amazonica, V. Cruziana and the latest addition the V. Boliviana. At one time it was thought that the latter was just a variety but thanks to the work of Kew Gardens botanist and researcher Carlos Magdalena, it has been discovered that the latter is a true new species. The main differences are a different distribution of spines, seeds and it only lives in the wild in one of the largest wetlands in the world, the Llanos de Moxos in the Beni province of Bolivia. Carlos Magdalena always had the suspicion, so back in 2016 he asked the Botanical Garden of Santa Cruz in Bolivia to send him seeds and after years of studies, comparisons and genetic analysis he came to these conclusions. This discovery was also endorsed by the work of illustrator Lucy Smith, a Kew Gardens collaborator, who was commissioned to make scientific drawings of the alleged new species and then compare them with those in the Kew Gardens archives by artist Walter Hood Fitch, who in 1845 illustrated a specimen whose seed arrived from Bolivia. The whole thing was then revealed to the world with the publication in July this year, 2022, in the Journal Frontiers in Plant Science. A direct comparison like this has never been done before because the specimens come from three different parts of the world and it is very rare to be able to keep the three different Victoria species in the same botanical garden because the space they occupy is so large.


Victoria cruziana, Meise Botanical Garden in Belgium

The history of the 'discovery' of the Victoria is full of protagonists around the world and began in 1801 when the Bohemian botanist and naturalist Tadeáš Haenke, sent to Bolivia by the Spanish government to study the local flora, is said to have first seen the Victoria on the Mamore' River, one of the tributaries of the Amazon, but unfortunately died without being able to record his discovery. Then it was the turn of Aime Bonpland who saw the plant in Argentina in 1819 and in 1825 sent the seeds and a full description to France.


Victoria amazonica in the 'Victoria haus' greenhouse in Berlin

In 1832 it was the turn of Eduard Poeppig who found it in the Amazon but assuming that it belonged to the same genus as the Asiatic Euryale ferox gave it the name Euryale amazonica. Alcide d'Orbigny saw the plant at Corrientes in Argentina and the German botanist Robert Schomburgk found Victoria on the Berbice River in British Guiana and sent specimens and figures to Europe in 1836. It was from these specimens that the English botanist and horticulturist John Lindley established the genus Victoria in 1837 and described the species regia in honour of Queen Victoria.


Victoria boliviana at Kew Gardens 

@E. Johnston

As far as cultivation was concerned, it was Robert Schomburgk who first attempted to cultivate Victoria, trying to transplant it from lakes and streams in Georgetown, British Guiana, but the plants died. In 1846 it was Thomas Bridges who sent seeds packed in a jar of moist clay to England. Of the 25 received at Kew Gardens, three germinated and grew well as seedlings until winter, when unfortunately they too died. Eventually, after further attempts, it was two English doctors, Rodie and Luckie, who sent seeds in a fresh water bottle to Kew in February 1849. The first plant flowered on 8 November 1849 in a specially constructed greenhouse on the Duke of Devonshire's estate in Chatsworth and it was then that one of the first flowers was cut and given to Queen Victoria.


The profile of an Victoria Amazonica

At that time the Duke of Devonshire's head gardener was Joseph Paxton and it was the morphology of this unique water lily that inspired him to create the Crystal Palace greenhouse at Kew in London to host the first World's Fair in 1851, made of iron and glass. The idea starts from the strength of the leaf, whose ribs on the lower face, organised like a system of buttresses, can support up to 45 kg of weight when evenly distributed. The rigid radially symmetrical centric leaves covered with strong thorns underneath, so as not to be eaten by fish, are reinforced by several concentric and flexible ribs distributed in opposite directions, a morphological feature that recurs in the construction solution of the Crystal Palace. For this and other achievements, Paxton received a knighthood from His Majesty.


Crystal Palace of 1851 made of iron and glass

But the fascination of the Victorias does not stop there; their enormous flowers can reach up to 30 cm in diameter, and they only bloom for one day and two nights. On the first evening, at dusk, a large, thorn-covered bud opens and a white flower appears which, thanks to a thermodynamic reaction, raises its internal temperature 11 degrees above the ambient temperature. This released heat and a pineapple-like scent attract beetles, which at dawn, when the flower closes, become trapped in it. But as the Victoria is not a carnivorous plant, they do not die, but rather spend the day there feeding on the starch-rich floral appendages. On the second night the flower changes colour, taking on shades of pink or red, and at dusk releases the insects, which, soaked in pollen, go on to fertilise another flower. At dawn on the second day, the flower withers, closes and dips, and it is there that the fruit ripens.

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Flowers of a Victoria amazonica and Victoria cruziana

In Kew Gardens today, pollination is done manually in the summer and the harvesting of the seeds in the autumn. A constant temperature of 15° prevents seed death or premature germination. Today, a process called nicking the seeds is used to help them germinate earlier, which happens after ten days. The sprouted seeds are initially placed in a small pot in water, and gradually moved to larger pots and finally placed in a large one with clay soil as a substrate. Seedlings need a temperature of no less than around 31° while adult plants grow between 26° and 31°. As the plant needs light, auxiliary horticultural bulbs are used for about 12 hours in winter, which is why in nature the giant water lily dies in autumn due to the lack of light.


Euphorbia tirucalli

The Victoria in its natural habitat has a very special tenant the Trotter lily or Jacana, a bird with very long legs, fingers and claws that runs from Victoria to Victoria and feeds on the insects on and under the leaves, which it deftly turns over with its, also, long beak. It also nests on the leaf, laying eggs as shiny as the waxy layer that covers it, camouflaging them perfectly. Today, although the plant is not threatened with extinction, ongoing climate change in the Amazon basin and the relentless destruction of the Amazon rainforest may pose a future threat to this wonder of nature, a source of continuous new discoveries.


Victoria 'Trickeri' variety of Victoria Cruiziana at the Chicago Botanical Garden



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