Victoria Water Lily Care Comes Full Circle

For the first time in a century, the Garden is bringing the heat back to one of its most iconic displays. The Victoria pool in the Central Axis is now heated, extending the growing season for these aquatic giants and allowing them to reach their full plant potential. It’s the latest development in our care for this collection, which dates back to the 1800s.

Meet the Victorias

The Victoria genus is the largest member of the water lily family (Nymphaeaceae) with just two species — amazonica and cruziana.

Both share several traits. They are native to South America. Both bloom at night—opening the first night with a white flower and closing the following morning to reopen with pink petals on the second evening. The leaves of both species, aside from their massive size, have a rigid and elaborate structure on the underside and a raised lip around the edge. There are also key differences.

As the name implies, V. amazonica is found in warm, slow water areas of the Amazon River. Its pads can reach up to 10 feet, with flowers as big as a soccer ball. The leaves have a red underside, which continues along the raised vertical edge. The first of the two species described to science, it was also known early on as Victoria regia.

The leaf and flower of V. cruziana is slightly smaller than its cousin, but it has a larger, green rim around the edge of the leaf. It also has a more southern habitat, being native to Argentina, Paraguay, and Bolivia. That greater tolerance for cool weather gives it an edge when grown outdoors in the St. Louis climate.

The two have also been bred in cultivation to create the popular Victoria ‘Longwood Hybrid’. This hybrid is created by fertilizing the flower of V. cruziana with the pollen from V. amazonica. The resulting offspring has the size of V. amazonica and the climatic tolerance of V. cruziana. Missouri Botanical Garden superintendent George H. Pring helped develop this hybrid at Longwood Gardens in the 1960s, and Longwood is still one of the main sources of seed for many botanical gardens today.

“Through the summer and early fall scarcely a week passed in which one or more of the flowers of the Victoria regia did not open, while the large leaves were a source of even greater wonder to visitors.”

-Seventh Annual Report of the Director, 1896

Victorias at the Garden

The Victoria collection began with James Gurney, who was hired by Henry Shaw in 1868. At the time, Gurney was one of a small handful of people with experience growing Victoria, a skill he acquired during his time at Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. Gurney cared for the Victoria collection both at the Garden and at Tower Grove Park, where he was also the park’s first superintendent.

The Garden built its first dedicated Victoria pool in 1894, heated by steam pipes connected to the heating system for the Linnean House. The new display created quite a buzz, drawing nearly 30,000 visitors on a single day in September 1895. Care of the collection would pass from Gurney to Pring, who helped distribute Victoria seed to other gardens across the country.

Lily Pool with Heating Pipes 1909
The Garden’s Victoria pool in 1909, drained to reveal the growing pots and steam pipes.

The original lily pool was the backdrop for some of the most sensational and well-known photographs of this collection. To demonstrate the strength of Victoria pads, people were often invited to pose on the enormous leaves. Wooden slabs were used to help protect the top of the leaf, but the size and structure of the plant could allow it to easily hold the weight of a child, even some larger adults. It should go without saying, but please do not attempt to recreate these photos when visiting our collection today.

The pool was later removed to make way for the Gladney Rose Garden, and moved to its current location in the Central Axis in 1917. The new pool was constructed without any heating element. This is rarely a problem for V. cruziana or ‘Longwood Hybrid’ but the unpredictable St. Louis weather made it difficult to reliably display V. amazonica. In fact, the species disappeared entirely from the outdoor pool in the 1970s.

In addition to the outdoor display, Victoria would also find a home inside the Climatron for many years. The original design for the iconic greenhouse included a large pool with a feature known as the “Aquatunnel” allowing visitors to view the gigantic lilies from underneath. The pool presented a number of maintenance challenges, and was eliminated during the Climatron renovation in 1988.

The Aquatunnel, a feature of the original Climatron, allowed visitors to view the underside of Victoria lilies.

Victoria amazonica wouldn’t make a return to the outdoor pools until a particularly hot summer in 1998. Around the same time the Garden also began using a black dye to absorb the sun’s energy and naturally heat the pool faster. This small addition also helps restrict algae growth, making for both warmer and healthier water lilies.

Extending Bloom Time With Heat

In order to reach their full potential size, Victoria lilies require a growing season long enough to mimic the warm water conditions of their native habitat.

Before heating pipes were added, it could take until mid-June for the water temperature to reach the optimum 82 degrees. The new system heats both the water and soil in the pool, and is managed from the same controls used to heat the Climatron. Now the outdoor growing season can conceivably stretch from late April to early October, allowing these plants to grow larger and be enjoyed longer.

Work on the new heating system was made possible with a generous donation from Jeanie and Michael Gleason.

Central_Axis_Incrocci01 (2)
Warm water circulation construction in the circular water lily pool on the Central Axis. Designed to lengthen the growing season for the Victoria water lilies. Photo: Tom Incrocci

Plan Your Visit

Peak bloom time for the Victorias is the hot summer months of July and August. Because the plants are night-bloomers, the best time to see the huge flowers fully open are early morning or in the late evening.

Opportunities for evening viewing include Whitaker Music Festival, as well as Garden Party Lights. The Garden also offers a behind the scenes tour of our aquatic plant displays.

You can also view some of the Garden’s collection in the lily pools of neighboring Tower Grove Park. The Victorias displayed there are grown in Garden greenhouses, continuing a connection created more than a century ago by James Gurney.

Cassidy Moody – Digital Media Specialist

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