How a Giant Amazonian Water Lily Changed the Course of Conservatories

Posted September 5th, 2014 by Bonnie Hall and filed in Uncategorized
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“On unbent leaf, in fairy guise
Reflected in the water
Beloved, admired by hearts and eyes,
Stands Annie, Paxton’s daughter

Accept a wish, my little maid,
Begotten at the minute
That scene so bright may never fade,
You still the fairy in it.

That all your life, nor care, nor grief
May load the winged hours
With weight to bend a lily’s leaf
But all around be flowers.”



annie paxton_pic1.1

Douglas Jerrold penned these words to celebrate the massive accomplishment of Joseph Paxton.  Where many others had failed, he had not only coaxed the giant Amazonian lily to live, but to bloom!  Later, so inspired by the structure of the leaf of the Victoria, he incorporated it into an architectural design for a conservatory.  This design was used in the construction of the Crystal Palace for the Great Industrial Exhibition of 1851 in London.  For this and other accomplishments, Paxton received the honor of Knighthood.

The giant water lily is a native to the shallow waters of the Amazon River basin.  It has huge floating, tray-like green leaves and large, strongly fragrant white flowers that change to pink after the 2nd night of blooming.  The flowers emit a pineapple-like fragrance.  A chemical reaction inside the flower heats the bloom to as much as 20°F above the ambient temperature which helps to disperse the perfume and attract the scarab beetle that pollinates the lily.  As daylight approaches, the flower shuts, trapping the beetle.  During the day as the beetle struggles to escape it becomes coated in pollen.  The flower then re-opens the following evening as a dark pink hue.  The beetles are not fond of pink flowers and eagerly leave on their search for another white lily.   Usually, only one flower blooms at any one time.  The lily is well defended with sharp spines on the flower buds, leaf stalks and the underside of the leaves. In contrast, the leaf surface feels smooth to the touch and slightly rubbery.  The lily pads have incredible buoyancy from the web-like structure of veins and as indicated prior, can support the weight of a well-balanced adult.

Amazon Lily

Close-up of the spiny bloom
Close-up of the spiny bloom

The genus Victoria was discovered in 1801 by Bohemian botanist Tadeas Haenke.  He died in what is now Bolivia without recording his discovery.  Aime Bonpland, medical doctor turned botanist travelled to South America and saw Victoria in Argentina, sending seeds and a full description to France.  Eduard Poeppig found the lily on the Amazon in 1832 and gave the first published account of it under the name Euryale amazonica, believing that it belonged to the same genus as the Asian Euryale feroxSir Richard Schomburgh found Victoria in 1837 in British Guiana and presented his findings to the London Botanical Society which generated intense wonder and excitement.  The news of the discovery sparked a monumental race to bring a live specimen back and bring it to bloom.  It was not until 1846 that Thomas Bridges sent seeds packed in a jar of wet clay to England to be propagated.  Of the 25 seeds sent, three germinated but all died when winter weather commenced.  They tried again with 35 live plants that were brought to England and all died.  In mid-1849, the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew received viable seeds from South America.  This is where the story of Joseph Paxton, the giant water lily and an inspiration for conservatory architecture blend.

On August 3, 1849, Joseph Paxton brought a tiny Victoria home to Chatsworth – the estate where he was head gardener for the sixth Duke of Devonshire at Chatsworth.  Having made arrangements with Kew to obtain one plant, he arrived early in the morning to personally oversee the packing of the lily.  The largest leaf was a mere five and a half inches.  Carrying the plant for the entire journey home, he dedicated the following year to become the first blooming Victoria.  Five cartloads of soil and a twelve-foot square heated tank in a greenhouse were waiting for the young seedling.  Once planted, the water lily grew at a near frightening pace.  On October 1, the lily was measuring four feet across for one leaf and on November 2nd, the lily had produced a flower bud!  Paxton remarked in a letter to the Duke ‘the last leaf of Victoria is 4 feet 8 and a half inches in diameter which is within 3 inches of the size described by Schomburgh.’  Not only had the lily grew – but was thriving as well under Paxton’s care as it did in the wilds of the Amazon River.  The first flower measured a yard in circumference and continued to bloom for nearly two weeks.

handdrawinglily_pic 4.4

Joseph Paxton was born in 1803, the seventh son of a farming family.  Giving erroneous information as to his age, he enrolled at Chiswick Gardens and became a garden boy at the age of fifteen at Battlesden Park.    By 1823, Paxton was now with the Horticultural Society’s Chiswick Gardens.  The gardens were in close proximity to the sixth Duke of Devonshire and the two would often cross paths.  The Duke was impressed with Paxton’s skill and enthusiasm and offered him the position of Head gardener for Chatsworth.  Considered to be one of the finest landscaped gardens of the time, Paxton assumed this position as a 20-year old.

In 1832, Paxton developed an interest in greenhouses at Chatsworth where he designed a series of buildings with ‘forcing frames’ for trees.  After some experimentation, he designed a ridge and furrow roof that would be at right angles to the morning and evening sun – a forerunner to the modern greenhouse.

Paxton greenhouse.  Ridge and Furrow design.  Chatsworth 1837
Ridge and Furrow design. Chatsworth 1837

Inspired by the huge leaves of the Victoria, – what Paxton referred to as a ‘natural feat of engineering’, the secret was in the rigidity provided by the radiating ribs connecting with flexible cross-ribs.  Paxton learned that great horizontal surfaces – whether on a leaf or on a roof – could be supported with the extra rigidity provided by the ridge and furrow configuration.  From these observations – a true moment of life mimicking nature – Paxton built a light and airy lily house with a glass roof.

underside lily
Underside view of the leaf

This was not the last time that Paxton would use this design schematic.  Soon thereafter, designs for The Crystal Palace were being considered.  With 245 plans submitted, only two were a remote possibility  and both would take too long to build and be too permanent.  Referring back to the lily, Paxton’s concept was entirely prefabricated iron and glass sections.  His concept was accepted and Paxton delivered complete design plans in nine days.  Completed in eight months, The Crystal Palace has been heralded as an engineering triumph.

paxton hand drawing crystal palace7.7

Paxton was not only a gardener with extraordinary skill, but also an outstanding architect.  Building one of the first glass houses, Paxton took inspiration from the structural engineering of the giant water lily from the Amazon River that he tenderly nurtured from seedling to large blooming plant.  He conceptualized that the ribs and struts that supported the lily would function as the base of his designs not only at Chatsworth, but later for his masterpiece The Crystal Palace.

An exotic, tropical lily solely responsible for creating a national fervor for exploration and propagation, named for a Queen and then ultimately impacting the future of conservatory and greenhouse design forever.

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