Victoria amazonica

In the middle of winter’s chills, we at the Adelaide Botanic Garden are especially focused this year on things tropical – to be exact, one thing tropical. A regeneration of the Victoria House now encloses the pond constructed in 1868 to show off one of the world’s showiest plants – Victoria amazonica, the giant Amazon water-lily. We have a series of special occasions in the next few months to celebrate this event.

The original Victoria House, as we have always called it, was built within two years of the arrival of the gardens’ second director – and for a very good reason. Richard Schomburgk had special cause to want a shelter in which to cultivate Victoria, because he was, with his brother Sir Robert, the discoverer of this amazing plant. Richard Schomburgk rewarded Adelaideans with the first flowering of this astonishing plant the same year the conservatory was built.

Robert Schomburgk’s specimen collected on the Berbice River in British Guiana (now Guyana) reached John Lindley in London in 1836, and he gave it its first name, Victoria regia. The romance of the discovery, the spectacular beauty of the plant and the flower, and the challenege of cultivating something new obsessed plant collectors throughout the 19th century, but it wasn’t until 1849 that viable seeds and a gifted horticulturist were brought together. Joseph Paxton achieved celebrity status by flowering Victoria in a specially constructed glasshouse on the Duke of Devonshire’s estate, Chatsworth House in Derbyshire. Paxton’s curiosity led him to find out that a leaf could support over 300 pounds (of carefully distributed sandbags) and his demonstration that a leaf could therefore easily bear the weight of a girl on a framework of thin boards to distribute the load had London journalistic hyperbole reporting his daughter as ‘… she enjoyed a sail on the lily pond.’

Paxton saw beyond the beauty and technical challenges of cultivation. His observation of the leaves had already informed his design of the glasshouse that delivered his success. Subsequently he again borrowed the architecture of the Victoria amazonica leaf to submit a design to house the Great Exhibition of 1851. Paxton’s design was successful and the renowned Crystal Palace was built on a light metal framework clothed with sheets of glass, fundamentally changing concepts of materials in architecture almost a full century before such structures were attempted by modem architects.

I believe Victoria influenced art as well as architecture. Rene Lalique moved to London in 1878 and attended the Sydenham College located in the Crystal Palace. As Lalique’s own website observes, in the freedom of his new environment, Lalique cultivated his graphic design skills, and develop(ed) a unique and naturalistic style that would later become his trademark as a jeweller and of course as a glass artist. The influence of the Crystal Palace’s Victoria-inspired design would hardly have been lost on Lalique and it doesn’t even seem a long bow to argue the influence of Victoria amazonica on Lalique’s art. Some of the detail by jewellers Naomi Schwartz and Kath Inglis in the Gardens’ Amazon Waterlily Pavilion pays homage to this connection.

Of course the flower of Victoria amazonica is as astonishing as the leaves, but it took Professor Roger Seymour from the University of Adelaide to describe it as a nightclub for beetles. Roger joined our 2005 visit to Guyana, and, with Philip Matthews, did some interesting new work on the special characteristics of the flower. Here, though, is his description, from a public lecture he gave in Georgetown: “… with the floral chamber equipped with every conceivable contrivance to make its guest comfortable, from sweet drinks (nectar)… to food (the sterile male florets)… to energy saving heat to keep them active – a beetle goes into a flower… in the evening, around 6.30 pm, when it opens up like a nightclub does… there are only two things on its mind… one is eating. And they eat and mate avidly all night. By the morning they are pretty tired, so they rest all day. As they emerge groggily when the flower opens up again, the pollen is shed on them.. .and then they fly away… in search of another nightclub.” These stories and others will be explored in the new Amazon Waterlily Pavilion, which we expect to open formally towards the end of this year after landscaping works are done. Meanwhile, Ian Schomburgk, Richard’s great-grandson, will talk about his experience on the Botanic Gardens of Adelaide’s last expedition to Guyana in 2005. Ian’s talk is at 10 am on Friday 27 July at the Lecture Room in the Goodman Building on Hackney Road for $5 including morning tea. Bookings are essential: call Mary on 8363 3282.

Perhaps Ian’s talk will convince you to join the Gardens’ expedition to Guyana from September 6-27, 2007. For your chance to travel in small boats up big rivers past drifts of Victoria amazonica (the national flower of Guyana) through rainforest and savannah, collecting plants and sleeping in hammocks, go to environment.sa.gov.au/botanicgardens/latestnews or call Nicole at the Gardens on 8222 9489.

The Schomburgk legacy is an important one both in Adelaide and Georgetown. Indeed, on our last visit, Ian Schomburgk and I were spirited away from the airport on our return from the Interior to meet with President Bharrat Jagdeo. The Schomburgks played a significant role in cataloguing the natural history of the region, describing the Amerindian tribes, and surveying the boundaries of British Guiana. They are perhaps as significant to Guyanan exploration as Captain James Cook and Sir Joseph Banks are to Australian exploration, which explains our presidential summons from the airport. Before we head off to Guyana there’ll be a preview of the new Amazon Waterlily Pavilion in the Gardens on the first weekend in September. This second half of 2007 is another instalment in the fascinating story of Victoria amazonica – a story with special links to Adelaide and its own cultural history .

Originally published in The Adelaide Review on 20 July 2007.

For more information about the Botanic Gardens of South Australia, visit the website.

@StephenJForbes
@BotGardensSA

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