Missouri Botanical Garden Bulletin
Vol. LIII No. 5 May 1965
VICTORIA WATER LILIES
PLANTS WHICH STIR MEN'S MINDS
When the Garden featured the new Longwood Hybrid Victorias in our new central pool last summer it was returning to the field of its earliest triumph just 70 years ago. Dr. Trelease, the Garden's first Director, tells in his annual reports for 1894 and 1895 how the new "Victoria Pool" for tropical aquatic plants was constructed just to the south of the Linnaean House. To make these plants grow as they do in the tropics the water was heated by a pipe from the same boiler which heated the Linnaean House and the water was kept in circulation mechanically to keep the plants in better health.
When in 1894 Victoria water lilies bloomed for the first time in St. Louis, there was a special evening reception for prominent St. Louisans and later in the season the Garden was open to the public in the early evening to view the giant white water lilies by emergency illumination set up for the purpose. The following season (and for many years thereafter) Victorias were grown in a heated pool at Tower Grove Park which had better facilities for evening display. The specially constructed pool was most successful. All through the summer and early fall hardly a week passed without one or more flowers opening. The following year we find Dr. Trelease proudly starting off his annual report by describing the public response to the new lilies. Due to frequent newspaper references to the giant lilies, so many people had turned out, that the total public attendance for the entire year had been raised by one-third!
The new Longwood Hybrid Victoria is both easier to grow and more spectacular than either of its parents. It has hybrid vigor and is brighter in color; in the St. Louis climate it does not require heated pools to develop leaves of spectacular size and elegant proportions. This new hybrid is a cross between two water lilies which have long been generally known to botanists and gardeners as Victoria regia and Victoria cruziana, though exactly how they ought to be classified is still a matter for scientific dispute to which a study of the hybrids and their descendants may contribute decisive evidence. They are perhaps two varieties of one species and it is quite possible that other varieties still await discovery. The first one introduced into cultivation has been long and widely known as Victoria regia though according to the international rules for such matters, Victoria amazonica is the technically correct name. Victoria cruziana has smaller leaves, with proportionately higher rims but it develops well without artificial heat in a climate as warm as St. Louis (if the pools are shallow enough for the water to be heated by the sun) and it has been grown here ever since Mr. Pring first obtained seeds of it directly from South America.
The Longwood Hybrid resulted from close collaboration between George H. Pring of the Missouri Botanical Garden and his son-in-law, Dr. Russell Seibert, the Director of the Longwood Gardens at Kennett Square, Pennsylvania. Shortly after these Gardens were opened to the public Mr. Pring was called there for four months as a consultant on water lilies. Pat Nutt, from Kew Gardens, was engaged to grow tropical water lilies and new pools were designed for a warm protected area between three greenhouses. The pools are supplied with continually filtered water and have concrete bottoms to help in keeping down weeds. One pool was designed especially for Victorias and was heated from the adjacent greenhouse. With the heated water both Victoria amazonica and Victoria cruziana could be grown.
Both lilies grew splendidly in the new pools and flowered and set seeds. This made it practical to carry out a project which Mr. Pring (as the world's foremost breeder of tropical water lilies) had always hoped might some day be possible, the raising of a hybrid between these two lilies. One might hope for a combination of the desirable features of both parents, the greater adaptability of V. cruziana to outdoor pools, the much larger leaves of V. amazonica. There was also the possibility that the cross might have enough hybrid vigor to make it larger and more adaptable than would otherwise have been expected. If it was fertile or semi-fertile, there might be interesting new combinations among the grandchildren. Furthermore all this information would be important evidence in deciding how these giant water platters should be classified.
Pat Nutt made the crosses at Longwood, pollinating at 9:30 in the evening, using a flower of Victoria cruziana which had opened for the first night and had receptive stigmas, as the female parent and a flower of Victoria amazonica which was open for the second evening and was actively shedding pollen, as the male parent. The pollinations were made on September 17, 1960, and seed was collected (approximately 275 seeds) on October 25. The seeds were stored in moist sand for six weeks at 65° F., then six weeks at 50° in water. The reciprocal cross, using V. amazonica as the seed parent produced seed but it failed to germinate. The same original cross was repeated in 1961, 62, 63 and 64 and new plants were raised each year in the nursery tanks in the greenhouses. The Victorias displayed at the Missouri Botanical Garden last summer were shipped from Longwood as young plants and held here in our own nursery tanks until the new pools were ready to receive them. In spite of being held back in this way, they did splendidly. The improved construction of the pools made it possible to feed the plants more effectively, and the concrete bottoms trapped more of the sun's heat. With the increased vigor of the hybrids and what Old St. Louisans refer to as "a good, hot summer," they throve amazingly and produced such a succession of leaves and flowers as had never been seen before in the Garden's previous Victoria pools.
The development of a new hybrid between plants which are well known to you is a fascinating thing to watch. Crosses between two species or between well marked geographical varieties are usually more or less immediate but there are often some surprises. One frequently has not had the wit to figure out just how the two sets of levers are going to work together in making the new plant. Hybridization produces not the new but the unexpected.
Victoria amazonica has much larger leaves than V. cruziana but the stiff upright rims which give Victorias their distinctive charm are proportionately lower and do not develop as early in the life of the plant as they do in V. cruziana. These characters worked out about as had been expected. The rims were not as late in developing as in amazonica nor as early as in cruziana. The leaves were intermediate in size but hybrid vigor made them almost the size of amazonica leaves. The rims were intermediate in proportion but they were of course on much larger leaves than those of cruziana and rose dramatically above the surface of the water, making the plants conspicuous from a distance.
The big surprise was the color of the exposed outer side of the rim. This is dark pink in amazonica, and greenish in cruziana with the red pigment restricted to the very edge. The hybrids were brighter than either parent, a strong coppery red, one of those shades which delight photographers because it always comes out so well on color film.
To one who has studied many species crosses, such a result is not at all unique. Plants with strong color usually have strong restrictive mechanisms preventing its display in certain parts of the plant, or holding down the tone of the color.
A species with little color will have had less need of restricting color development. Hybridization with it may combine moderate color with slight restriction to produce a much brighter plant than either of the parents. I noticed this some years ago when I made hybrids between the common spiderworts of our railroad tracks and cliffs, Tradescantia ohiensis (which outside the flowers has so little color that it takes a microscope to find the occasional touches of red) and our rarer woodland species, Tradescantia pilosa, the underside of whose leaves are covered with dull dark-purple. The hybrids are brighter than either. They have bright magenta coloring spreading out from the base of the leaf and from the joints on the stems. Breeding from them one can produce brilliant spiderworts whose stems are all wands of red magenta.
Mr. Pring and I are hoping to study such details this coming summer when it is planned to have one plant of the Longwood hybrid in the center of the circular pool and four of the grandchildren of the cross around it. The latter has been grown this winter in the nursery tanks in the greenhouse and it is already certain that they differ from each other in the amount of color, the shade of color, and the pattern of its distribution on the upper and lower surfaces of the floating leaf and the upright margin.
Victoria water lilies are native to the big river systems of South America which drain the eastern slopes of the Andes and wind their various twisting courses to the Atlantic ocean. Haenke was the first botanist to find them, in Bolivia in 1801. Descriptions and fragmentary specimens came back to Europe from various naturalists. Victoria amazonica was found to be common in sluggish rivers and their associated lagoons, where it grew up out of the rich black ooze in waters that became very shallow during the long dry seasons.
The famous Richard Spruce has left the most graphic descriptions of one of these lagoons at flowering time: "The aspect of the Victoria in its native waters is so new and extraordinary that I am at a loss to what to compare it. The image is not a very poetical one. When viewed from the banks above [it] was that of a number of tea trays floating, with here and there a bouquet protruding between them." The floating tray comparison must have been a common one in Latin America where wide serving trays are universally used. The native name "Yrupe" for these plants was first reported from the Rio Parana among the Guarani Indians, "Y" meaning water, and "rupe" being a big tray in their language. Variants of this name have been reported in various parts of South America. Translated as "water platter" it has been widely used as a common name. Thanks to English pride in their queen, however, it made little headway in competition with "Victoria regia" and for once a scientific name has prevailed over an excellent one in everyday speech.
In some places in South America, Victoria amazonica was so common that its nutritious seeds (which are borne in pods the size of a baby's head) were used for food and its Indian name meant "Maize of the Water." Bonpland has left an interesting description of its use along the Rio Pardo: "The farina made from the seed is preferred to that from the finest wheat and the ladies of Corrientes, when the fruits are ripe, obtain the seeds and extract the flour *** it's considered a luxury to have cakes of farina of the Victoria regia."
It was almost half a century after Victoria amazonica was first discovered in South America before it was grown and flowered in England. Pictures and descriptions of the fabulous plant with flat leaves over six feet across traveled back by sea mail and fragmentary dried specimens of the leaves and flowers accumulated in the world's museums. Sir William Hooker, of Kew, pieced together all the evidence and published monographic accounts illustrated with excellent colored pictures. Spurred on by the public's growing interest and anxious to procure the plant as a tribute for his sovereign, after whom it was named, he made repeated attempts to procure living plants or viable seeds. The plants died, fresh seeds would not germinate when they were mailed back dry, and rotted when they were mailed in bottles of the muddy water in which they ripened. With grim persistence he kept up the attempt and finally brought in a quantity of viable seeds by having them mailed in small lots in bottles filled with clear water. Over fifty germinated, and plants were grown in the greenhouses at Kew but finally sickened and died in the damp, poorly-lit structures then available there. Fortunately over half of the seedlings had been generously shared with growers of rare plants and four of these gentlemen (all four of them dukes) succeeded in raising the plants to flowering size.
Joseph Paxton, the gardener and general factotum for the Duke of Devonshire, by heating and circulating the water, produced a vigorous plant which bore England's first Victoria flower in the ducal greenhouse at Chatsworth on the 9th of November 1849. He reported fully ripened seeds by December of that year and grew vigorous seedlings in 1850. At Syon House, across the river from Kew, Mr. Ivison, the gardener for the Duke of Northumberland, produced flowers by 1850 and the curious leaves were exhibited at the London Horticultural Society at Chiswick. These men were soon followed by the Duke of Bedford at Woburn, and the Duke of Buccleugh at Dalkeith Palace (the first Victoria bloom for Scotland).
There is a personal account of the flowering at Woburn which is of particular interest to us because it is due to two St. Louisans (though it is probably not as reliable a source of historically accurate details as some others, since it was written by an old gentleman, recalling what he had heard from another gentleman fifty years before he wrote it all down). J. Christian Bay, the Garden's first librarian, published in 1946 in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, a fascinating little book, "In the House of Memories." In writing about Sir Robert Schomburgk (whom he refers to as Richard) he relates the connection between Mr. James Gurney, the Garden's first Superintendent, and the history of Victoria amazonica. "The plant was grown in the gardens of the Duke of Bedford. The Duke handed the seed to a young gardener on his estate, James Gurney, for innumerable years later the head gardener of the Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis. James Gurney developed the plant and its enormous floating leaves, which will support a small child, and attracted international notice and interest. When the plant bloomed, Queen Victoria, after whom it had been named, came to look at it. 'Gardener,' she said to James Gurney, 'tell me how you succeeded in producing this wonderful plant.' 'So I stepped forward,' explained Gurney; and when he told of this, one of the greatest moments in a long, blessed, and useful life, his eyes would moisten."
As soon as good seeds were available Victoria amazonica was flowered in the United States, where our hotter and longer summers made this much less of a feat than in England. The first American blooms were raised by Meehan, the head gardener for Caleb Cope, in August 1851 at Springbrook near Philadelphia. Seeds from this plant went to Salem, Massachusetts, where they were flowered successfully by John Fisk Allen in a greenhouse with merely the extra heat trapped from the sun. With the 28th leaf, the first flower was produced on the 16th of July, 1853.
As we shall see there is something about Victoria amazonica which appeals to people who can make plans on a magnificent scale and carry them to completion. Mr. John Fisk Allen was so excited by his flowering Victoria that he produced the following year one of the most curious folios in the Missouri Botanical Garden Library. It is large but thin, only seventeen pages thick but 27 inches high and 21 inches wide. It gives a detailed account of the history of the lily and of its discovery with some homely details as to just how Allen grew it. There are drawings of the flower and a large colored plate, which according to the pretentious title page were made "by William Sharp from specimens at Salem, Massachusetts," though astute librarians will call your attention to the fact that the plates were obviously copied from those previously published by Sir William Hooker.
Joseph Paxton of Chatsworth was even more influenced by Victoria amazonica than was Mr. Allen. He studied the plant to such purpose that he revolutionized greenhouse construction, conceived and built the Crystal Palace, and advocated the designing of large buildings of a light metal framework clothed with sheets of glass, almost a full century before such structures were attempted by modern architects.
Like other reflectively minded observers, Paxton was even more impressed with the portions of a Victoria which are hidden below the water line, than with those that show above it. It is a pity that the living Victorias cannot somehow be exhibited so that the public can see and study the hidden design which makes possible these graceful floating platters. Except on the upright rims, the strengthening and stiffening framework for the big leaves is nearly all hidden on their undersides. The long stout cable-like leaf-stalks and flower-stems which rise up from the bottom of the pool are on view only when the old plants are carted away in the autumn. Even then one has to cut into them with a knife to reveal the large continuous airducts which carry oxygen down to the roots. Mr. Cutak's picture diagrams the octopus-like pattern of the leaf and flower stalks. When the water was let out of the pool last fall and the old plants were revealed, he cut the old leaf blades and seed pods from one of them and posed it on top of the underwater plant box in which it had grown all summer. When one considers the scale of the picture it is remarkable that all of this plus the terminal parts which have been pruned away, should have developed from a small seed in just a few months. Another feature which is only suggested is the mantle of formidable spines with which the under-water tissues are protected. Those on the seed pod are the most repulsive of all and Mr. Pring, after dealing with them for over fifty years, warns you that if you hit them with your bare hands "you can feel the prick for two or three days." Richard Spruce has effectively summed up his impressions when on the Amazon he first looked at these undersides: "A leaf turned up suggests some strange fabric of cast iron just taken out of a furnace; its color and its enormous ribs with which it is strengthened increasing the similarity."
When Joseph Paxton began his long association with Victoria amazonica he was nominally a gardener with little formal education who had become the trusted agent of a wealthy English aristocrat. Actually he was one of the keenest and most versatile men of his generation, combining a brilliant imagination with vast practicality. Recognizing his great gifts, the bachelor Duke of Devonshire had made of him a sort of traveling companion and business manager in lengthy visits to the Mediterranean. In this way Paxton acquired a command of foreign languages, a detailed knowledge of the art and architecture of Renaissance and classic times, an ability to write and speak effectively and a personal insight into the history, politics and culture of other countries beside his own. Though he remained at Chatsworth until late in life, with his tremendous energy he also wrote for horticultural publications and founded a horticultural and botanical magazine. His architectural ability was widely recognized and as a member of a firm of architects he designed gardens and estates for wealthy clients not only in England but on the Continent. This was the man whose greatest accomplishment grew out of his ability to convert an understanding of Victoria leaves into practical architectural results.
The underside of a Victoria leaf, aside from its garniture of spines, looks like a geometrical diagram in three dimensions, constructed with artistic finesse. It is light, strong, graceful and surprisingly stiff for something made of such flexible materials. The main ribs radiate from the summit of the leaf stalk, branching and rebranching with almost mathematical regularity. Smaller side ribs connect the main ones and are themselves interwebbed, and so on. All these supporting veins are much higher than they are wide (as they should be by fundamental engineering principles). Some of the smaller ones are the most dramatic. They are paper thin, but extend out from the leaf for an inch or so. They are indeed a perfect design for a circular leaf supported from the center, that must be light, strong, and stiff. So I was assured by Dean Alexander Langsdorf of the Washington University School of Engineering when I took one of them to him, some years ago before I had heard of Joseph Paxton, though I was already intrigued by the implied logic of the leaf's design.
Mr. Paxton could not have had these leaves under his daily care at a more fortunate time; he was already planning to build a fine new greenhouse in which to raise such lilies to perfection and that meant it must be far lighter than any greenhouse previously constructed. He has been called exceedingly lucky, as well as highly talented. It is more probable that what looked like luck to people with slower minds was Paxton's ability to see opportunity coming down his street before she ever knocked at his door, and to be there in time to greet her and profit immediately from the news. He set out to design a new kind of greenhouse for the water lilies, using the principles of their own design to make it light in weight but strong and stable. The greenhouses of that day had begun to develop beyond the orangeries from which they originated, brick or stone houses with widely spaced windows and a few skylights in the roof, but they were essentially clumsy sheds with small panes of glass supported by thick wooden timbers that kept out much of the light.
Paxton conceived of a greenhouse for the big water lilies which would be strong, light, and graceful, its weight carried by slender parallel supports of iron just wide enough apart for the long panes of glass which were then becoming available from English glass manufacturers. At regular intervals between the panes were slender cross supports of wood, channeled to carry off the moisture which condensed on the glass or the rain which leaked in from outside. This water was then funneled into narrow spouts which ran down along each metal rib and carried it off. The accompanying plate shows his original plan as he prepared it to accompany his description in The Gardeners' Chronicle.
The new Lily House was built at Chatsworth. Victoria water lilies and other aquatics flourished in the central tanks, the Queen and her family came to see them, but Paxton soon had far larger plans afoot. Under the leadership of Albert, the Prince Consort, the Great Exhibition of 1851 was taking shape. Prince Albert was determined that it should be a cultural and recreational event of international importance. It should shake the English out of their insular smugness and make people aware of new developments in Science and Industry. The idea did not take hold quickly and the time was getting late. What was needed was an imaginative building which would take the public's fancy, furthermore one which could be ready by the time the exhibition opened.
Paxton dreamed up the Crystal Palace, a vast hall* [*it covered 18 acres] big enough for the whole exhibition, constructed like his Lily House at Chatsworth but in principle not unlike the huge shells of metal and glass which developed a century later.
Paxton built his palace of glass and iron in London in Hyde Park high enough to include a large elm tree already on the site, with beds of flowering trees and shrubs to set off the exhibits and a second story promenade where one could look down on the exhibition and the huge crowds which came to see it. It gave him international fame in his day, but it did not lead to further buildings of this sort as he had been confident it would, not even after he had constructed its successor at Sydenham at the edge of London as an amusement park and concert hall. When such buildings were built his "stately pleasure dome" was forgotten and only an occasional scholar remembered his pioneer triumphs in this type of architecture. At the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew a large Palm House was built using some of his innovations as well as a small Victoria House, so that in such ways something of his horticultural tradition has lingered on. More than any other man he set the patterns for greenhouses for a full century.
At the Crystal Palace, Joseph Paxton was able to exhibit Victoria water lilies in flower in all their glory, for it was designed for evening display. Victorias are night-blooming and like many such flowers they close during the daytime hours even during the blooming period. It is a shame that more people have not been able to see them by the unaided light of a full moon for then they are their loveliest. Seen in such a setting they are magnificently unreal and quite different from other water lilies. The first night they open, their fifty or more oblong petals are pure white and are held gracefully erect. During the next day they close up enough to have a tousled look. The second night they are tinged with pink or red and eventually turn way back, the outer ones lying on the water, forming blooms which are up to a foot and a half across. There are inner rings of stamens, inside the petals. At the very center of the flower is the complicated apparatus for receiving the pollen and attracting insects. At the very bottom of the flower is a shallow little cup filled with nectar. It is covered by an attractive rosette of outgrowths from the stigma, each one pointed toward the center.
Like most night-blooming flowers, the Victorias are fragrant. The whole area near the lily pool carries their heavy tropical scent when they are in bloom, something like a mixture of tuberoses, bananas, and ripe pineapple. Large Sphinx moths are attracted to the scent and dart back and forth like small birds. After flowering, the whole blossom changes into a wilted heap of rosy petals and soon the spine-covered seed pod ("a regular hedge-hog," says Mr. Pring) gradually sinks to the bottom of the pool. Raising and hybridizing water lilies as he has for half a century he has learned much about their important underwater life. One cannot become a successful plant breeder without learning to understand the whole life cycle of the plant he is working with and its various likes and dislikes--what one might call the "home-life" of this kind of plants.
As the seeds develop, the pod increases in size and usually the chambers develop unevenly, forming an unsymmetrical pod. Part of the increase in size comes from the aril, a gelatinous tissue which grows down over its surface and makes it more buoyant. Eventually the big pods (about the size of a baby's head) rise to the surface and the sticky masses of seeds begin to push out through splits in the sides of the seed chambers. The seeds stick together and mud and bits of dead leaf adhere to them so that they look something like frogs' eggs or even like a dirty tapioca pudding. Mr. Pring believes that it is this ability to float away from the mother plants which have spread these water lilies so widely through the great eastern-flowing river systems of South America.
At the Missouri Botanical Garden the seed pods are taken into nursery tanks in the greenhouse to complete their ripening. The Victorias yield well in St. Louis. One year when they were measured they averaged over two quarts of seed per plant. They are apparently as palatable and nutritious here as in South America for when the seeds were stored under water in open glass jars in the nursery tanks the rats got into them and in two nights had eaten up half the seeds. Since that time the jars have been protected with hardware cloth over the tops.
One year Mr. Pring and Joe Cutak (Mr. Lad Cutak's father) studied the viability of seed buried outdoors in the pools all winter. They were of course somewhat protected in the bottom mud of the old pools but were nevertheless exposed to alternate freezing and thawing. Tropical plants though they are, they came through very well and when planted germinated in ten days, much quicker than those which had been sown indoors in the nursery tanks.
At one time, when there had been no Victorias grown in the central pool for three successive years, young plants appeared there spontaneously from seeds which had survived in the mud and must therefore have been at least nearly four years old when they germinated. It was found that some of these seeds had been able to germinate and grow up out of the mud even when buried to the depth of a foot.
Early this spring Dr. Seibert returned from South America after studying Victorias in their native home in the Amazonian part of Peru. He has supplied us with the following notes and pictures of Victorias just coming into flower and with juvenile, virtually rimless leaves. "Arrangements were made through the Universidad Nacional de Amazonia Peruana, to observe Victoria amazonica growing in its natural habitat in that region of the Amazon River. This is approximately 2400 miles above the mouth of the Amazon. On January 12, 1965, accompanied by Ingo. Guillermo Cetrado, Ornithologist, and Jose Torres, Herbarium Assistant of the University, we proceeded by University launch upstream some 3/4 hour to a forest trail which led, after a three-hour overland hike, to an old oxbow lake known as 'Ushpa Cocha,' about 30 km. southwest of Iquitos."
"There, on the far edge of the lake, we saw several plants of the Amazonian water platter. The partly Indian inhabitant on the bank of this lake told us that the new plants were only starting to grow as the rainy season was getting started. The plants, he said, would continue to come up and increase in size throughout the year until almost the entire shallow lake a foot and a half to 3 feet deep at that time, would be covered with the large 6 foot diameter leaves. Then, about October, and in the height of the dry season as the water level went down, plants would die back and disappear until the next rainy season."
"The plants observed (see figs. 8 and 9) were obviously young, immature plants. Leaves were more than 3 1/2 feet in diameter with their edges only slightly turning up. Searching revealed the plants to be only beginning to flower. Because of the cloudy, rainy day, the two flowers seen, one on each of two plants, were still partly open. No second night flowers were observed, nor were old flowers or maturing seed pods available for observation or collection. The two flowers and portions of the leaves were collected for preservation in the Herbarium of the new Botany Department of the Universidad Nacional de Amazonia Peruana. With only two first night flowers presented, there was no conclusive evidence concerning likely pollinating agents."
"Since the plants are said to start here with the rainy season as the water in the lake or 'cocha' rises, one can only surmise that the platter petioles lengthen to accommodate the water depth. The plants, according to conversations, appear to be confined to some of the older shallow oxbow lakes. These appear to be filled by the rains, with clear run-off rather than from the rising muddy waters of the Amazon spreading out into its lower flood plain in this general area."
"One is led to conjecture as to whether the dry season lowering of the lake triggers the drying out of the colonies for the season? Or, could it be that the annual dry-season 'Friage,' a period of some 3 or so days when the weather suddenly turns quite cold with temperatures dropping to below 60° F. causes the plants to go into their annual dormancy? This question could not be satisfactorily answered by the single visit. Contacts in Iquitos have been requested to send seed during the summer. It will be of interest to compare the Iquitos strain of V. amazonica with plants currently in cultivation in this country."
The Victorias still raise a question with naturalists who examine their curious leaves, the same question that was raised by Dean Langsdorf when I carried a leaf over to his office for diagnosis. "They are perfectly designed to be strong and stiff," said he, "but why should water lily leaves be stiff?" Why indeed? Aside from the Victorias none of the water lilies are very stiff. When a strong wind blows across the pools you can see the edges being blown up and even rolled over by the wind. Increasingly I have come to suspect that it has something to do with making them attractive landing platforms for big water birds. I first got this idea when I noticed them being used this way in the Garden's lily pools. In preparing this account I have read reports of naturalists who have observed this behavior in the Amazon area and have even talked with travelers who attempted to photograph it.
It might be that the birds feed on the water snails that the lilies, like many other water plants, are cursed with. It might be that they spread the gelatinous, nutritious seeds. When the sticky seed pods come floating up to the surface the big stiff platters would make a platform from which the birds could peck at them and some of the sticky mess could easily ride away on a water-bird's long beak and travel to another river system or isolated oxbow lake. It would be an interesting problem to study in the field.
Joseph Paxton's lively curiosity about the structure of the Victoria leaf had other practical results besides influencing the design and construction of greenhouses. Impressed that such a thin and graceful leaf should be so strong (careful study with bags of sand show that a single leaf can support over 300 pounds) he used his peculiar genius for transmitting his own enthusiasms to the general public. He was himself excited about the plants; he proceeded to get England excited. He fashioned a framework of thin boards to protect the upper surface of the leaf and demonstrated that it could easily bear the weight of a charming young lady. Pictures were published of the event and one of the London journals reported that, riding on the leaf "she enjoyed a sail on the lily pond."
This began a long and continuing tradition for photographing attractive children (alone or in groups) on Victoria leaves. James Gurney carried on the custom at Woburn and introduced it in the 1890's at the Missouri Botanical Garden and Tower Grove Park. Mr Pring and Lad Cutak have perpetuated it here and now for some years the Longwood Gardens have been selling beautiful postcards of Lisa Seibert (Mr. Pring's granddaughter) riding upon a Victoria leaf. It would be interesting to know how many children have been photographed in this way; how many books, papers, and magazines have published such pictures and how many hundreds of thousands of postcards have been circulated from the various botanical gardens which carry on Paxton tradition. One thing is certain. Many of us not native to St. Louis first heard about Mr. Shaw's fabulous botanical garden, when as children we saw one of these pictures.
One of the basic functions of a botanical garden is to acquaint all kinds of people with plants and to make them realize their importance, their wonder, and their beauty. What a miracle of understanding has in this way grown out of Joseph Paxton's ability to pass on something of his interest in the Victoria water lilies!