Secrets of Victoria: Water Lily Queen

Longwood Gardens | Kennett Square, PA

By Longwood Gardens

Cross-section of a Victoria flowerLongwood Gardens

I. Preface

II. Discovering Victoria water-platters

III. The Architecture of a plant queen

IV. Night fever: A pollination story

V. Growing Victoria at Longwood Gardens

VI. Victoria ‘Longwood Hybrid’

VII. Credits

Victoria amazonica in Guiana (1847) by Walter FinchLongwood Gardens

I. Preface: Let us take you on a journey...

...into the Amazon and the wild, remote flood plains of South America to discover Victoria, the water lily queen. View the hidden aspects of Victoria: her fascinating biology, her intricately designed structure. Learn how the story of Victoria is woven into the history of Longwood Gardens from growing her in captivity to developing Victoria ‘Longwood Hybrid’.

Victoria at Longwood Gardens at dusk (2019) by Matthew RossLongwood Gardens

Our story begins at Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square, PA where the summer Waterlily Display is a prime attraction.

The star of this summer display is our majestic and compelling Victoria, known for her massive, architectural water-platters that grow more than six feet in diameter. Peeking out from between her dominant platters are fragrant flowers that attract pollinators and water lily enthusiasts alike.

Longwood Gardens' Waterlily Display (2013) by Daniel TraubLongwood Gardens

For more than 60 years, Longwood Gardens has played a major role in sharing the beauty of this giant water platter with countless admirers in North America and throughout the world.

Our Waterlily Display includes the two species of the queen lily that grow wild in South America: Victoria amazonica, Victoria cruziana, and a new hybrid, Victoria ‘Longwood Hybrid’ that was developed at Longwood Gardens.


In addition to growing and preparing our annual display year after year, our horticulture team leads plant exploration, research, and worldwide seed distribution.

Victoria at Longwood GardensLongwood Gardens

Longwood staff engage visitors in the Waterlily DisplayLongwood Gardens

Like explorers from centuries before, we are captivated to learn more about her and share her with the world.

Join us as we travel to South America to explore the natural habitat and unique biology of this majestic beauty. Marvel at her unique pollination story and what it is like to grow her in captivity. Last, we celebrate her legacy at Longwood Gardens and the story behind the creating of Victoria ‘Longwood Hybrid’.

Victoria Regia in the Amazon River (1986) by Ernst HeynLongwood Gardens

II. Discovering Victoria water-platters


Early 19-century explorers spent years searching uncharted South American backwaters for a giant, elusive water lily that few had ever seen. They all shared a desire to discover this immense and beautiful plant that had never been viewed or grown in the western world. Together, their discoveries led to the introduction of Victoria, the giant lily, to public gardens in Europe and North America.

Today, the extraordinary beauty, fragrance, size, and structure of Victoria continues to inspire and amaze plant enthusiasts throughout the world. New discoveries about her are still being made.

Reposing on the still and placid waters of the bays of the most powerful rivers in the New World, (Victoria regia) had for ages floated and flowered in all its beauty...
—Anonymous, England, 1857

Pictorial Half-Hours: or, Miscellanies of Art, with Illustrative Descriptions (1851) by Charles KnightLongwood Gardens

Early Victoria explorers told fabulous stories of seeing the giant lily in the wild. Based on these stories, artists in Europe created illustrations that romanticized her setting and sometimes exaggerated her size. The stories and renderings captured the imagination of the public.

Victoria flowerLongwood Gardens

Other European explorers had also found evidence of the giant lily in their South American travels; but it was John Lindley, an English botanist, who realized that the South American beauty was a whole new genus. He named her Victoria regia, after Victoria, the young British Queen.

Naming of Victoria in the British Queen's honor set off a race in Europe to breed Victoria regia in captivity. The first Victoria plants to flower were in Chatsworth, England in 1849. Other successes in cultivating Victoria soon followed.

Details of flower and leaf structure of Victoria (1851) by J.E. Planchon and L. Van HoutteLongwood Gardens

III. The architecture of a plant queen

We marvel at her size, but her architecture is most compelling.

From her Medusa-like stems, to her magnificent, platter-shaped leaves, to her fragrant flowers, every aspect of this South American plant queen’s architecture contributes to the growth and survival of her in the wild.

Victoria at Longwood Gardens (1962) by Gottlieb HampflerLongwood Gardens

Victoria water-platters live in both earth and water. Her roots are buried in dark mud; her stem lives in water; her leaves and flowers are open to sky and sun.

The size and growth rate of Victoria platters are connected to the structure of her earthbound roots and the rise of water levels in the flood lakes where Victoria grows and matures.

Mighty Amazon and Paraná Rivers in South America (2011) by Tomasz AniśkoLongwood Gardens

Victoria can be found in remote backwaters, in the ebbs and flows of the mighty Amazon and Paraná Rivers in South America.

The yearly flooding of South America’s two great river systems covers huge swaths of land, creating thousands of nutrient-rich flood lakes that allow Victoria to grow and thrive.

Victoria on drying flood plain by Tomasz AniśkoLongwood Gardens

The depth and lifespan of these quiet flood-born lakes may vary widely from one year to the next, affecting the growth and life cycle of this giant lily.

While most flood lakes disappear in the dry season, some years the floodplains never quite recede, and Victoria plants continue to grow and thrive as long as the backwater lakes remain. For this reason, Victoria plants can live for more than one year, depending on the conditions of a particular flood season.

Growing VictoriaLongwood Gardens

The seeds of Victoria ripen and grow in the mud left from flood lakes, first developing a rhizome that sends out roots and stems to tiny, immature leaves. As new leaves are formed, the rhizome sends out new roots.

Illustration of Victoria (1854) by William SharpLongwood Gardens

Peduncles and petioles

These snake-like plant parts can grow to lengths of 23 feet connecting the leaf platters and flowers to the growing tip and roots.

As the level of floodwaters rises, they grow longer to keep leaves at the waters’ surface.

Close-up view of Victoria's young, entangled peduncles and petiolesLongwood Gardens

The entangled peduncles and petioles, initially very similar in appearance, form an impenetrable defense of the stem’s growing tip.

As peduncles and petioles continue to grow, they bring soil nutrients to the leaves and flowers at the surface and carry oxygen and energy down to the roots and growing tip.

Victoria petioles and pedunclesLongwood Gardens

On the inside, they contain several hollow canals that allow exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide between leaves, roots, and rhizome. Their barbed outer layer acts as a remarkable defense.

Illustration of Victoria platter (1854) by William SharpLongwood Gardens

Water-platters

Victoria platters grow at an astonishing rate. At maturity, the leaf can reach colossal diameters of more than six feet and can support more than 80 pounds of evenly-distributed weight.

A growing Victoria platter by Tomasz AniśkoLongwood Gardens

With rising floodwaters, narrow leaves of Victoria slowly change shape and reach out to light and air.

A growing Victoria platter (2009) by Tomasz AniśkoLongwood Gardens

Victoria leaves first reach the water’s surface as a double roll of sharp, green spines.

Growing Victoria platters (2011) by Tomasz AniśkoLongwood Gardens

The young Victoria platter rises above the water as a bright green roll of prickle and soon transforms into a large, floating plate with upturned rim.

Measuring a Victoria platterLongwood Gardens

Once floating on the surface, Victoria platters grow at an astonishing rate of eight to 24 inches every 24 hours.

The two sides of the queen lily’s platters are strikingly different.

Victoria in South AmericaLongwood Gardens

The upper leaf surface is green, smooth, and waxy, repelling water; a circular lip gives stability in wind and storms, pushing away competing plant leaves, and preventing groups of Victoria leaf platters from overlapping in a pond.

For water drainage, the leaf has thousands of tiny perforations called stomatodes.

Underside of a VictoriaLongwood Gardens

The purple or red leaf underside is covered with sharp spines that shred competing leaf species and discourage predators.

A vein-like scaffolding structure, hollow and thin, provides a light, rigid, and buoyant leaf support of tremendous strength. These thin, hollow veins are joined by cross veins, creating a layer of air pockets.

Illustration of Victoria flower (1854) by William SharpLongwood Gardens

Flower crown

Fragrant Victoria flowers for two nights – each night revealing a different set of female to male characteristics.

Victoria flower (2008) by Tomasz AniśkoLongwood Gardens

Victoria at Longwood Gardens (2015) by Daniel TraubLongwood Gardens

The first night the flower’s female characteristics are dominant. She is a fragrant, creamy-white jewel that gives off heat, which makes it very attractive to native pollinating beetles. By morning the flower has closed and reopens the following evening transformed into a beautiful pink crown.

Victoria 'Longwood Hybrid' Time Lapse (2019) by Ty SeelyLongwood Gardens

Illustration of Victoria flower (1854) by William SharpLongwood Gardens

IV. Night fever: a pollination story

Just as explorers have traveled to the remotest areas of the Amazon, seeking the ephemeral beauty of the Victoria flower, scarab beetles travel from one Victoria flower to another, drawn by the sweet scent and warmth of the newly opened water lily.

Scarab beetles are lured by all their senses to enter the Victoria flower where they spend one night, covering themselves in water lily pollen. Then they fly off to another Victoria flower carrying the precious pollen to assure cross-fertilization that keeps this giant water lily species vibrant and alive.

Victoria flowerLongwood Gardens

Darkness descends. The white flower opens. The water lily queen’s alluring fragrance and the heat lures the scarab beetles through a tunnel to her warm, cozy floral chamber.

Cross-section of a Victoria flower with beetlesLongwood Gardens

Once in the chamber, the beetles feast all night on starch-rich, floral parts, taking many mating breaks.

As they roll around in their beetle-mating orgy, they drop pollen, picked up from another Victoria flower, on the chamber floor. The foreign pollen germinates, traveling to the giant lily’s ovary to fertilize her ovules.

Victoria flowerLongwood Gardens

The exit doors of floral chamber have closed. Trapped beetles continue to feast until the next evening, destroying many floral structures.

On the second day, the giant lily becomes a male pollen producer. The beetles cover themselves in fresh, new Victoria pollen.

Victoria flower with pollinating beetleLongwood Gardens

On the second evening, the floral chamber doors open and beetles, covered in pollen, fly away to pollinate another Victoria flower.

Heat changes have colored the white giant lily with strokes of deep crimson. The sweet fragrance of the first-day flower has disappeared.

Victoria fruitLongwood Gardens

Following flowering, the spiny ovary sinks underwater and develops into a large, berry-like fruit.

Fertilized ovules in the ovary begin to develop into seeds.

Patrick Nutt holds Victoria seedsLongwood Gardens

The Victoria flower’s ovary ripens and bursts open. Seeds rise to surface of the surrounding water like miniature pontoons.

The mating ritual of Victoria is complete. The seeds will find a resting place in the mud, when floodwaters recede. Over the next season, many will develop into new Victoria plants.

Early photograph of Longwood Gardens' Victoria program (1959)Longwood Gardens

V. Growing Victoria at Longwood Gardens

Longwood Gardens first began growing Victoria in 1957, under the leadership of Director Russell Seibert. Longwood’s first water lily expert, Patrick Nutt, spent years developing a spectacular Victoria display that includes the two species of the queen lily that grow wild in South America and a new hybrid, Victoria ‘Longwood Hybrid’.

Today, Longwood’s summer display of water lilies continues to evolve, amaze, and delight visitors each year.

Aquatic plant experts Patrick Nutt and George Pring at Longwood Gardens (1957) by Gottlieb HampflerLongwood Gardens

Early on in his study, water lily expert Patrick Nutt, spent years developing and cultivating techniques to grow Victoria in captivity. He collaborated with renowned water lily expert and Missouri Botanical Garden horticulturist George Pring, amongst others.

Longwood participated in several expeditions to study Victoria in her native habitat (2005) by Tomasz AniśkoLongwood Gardens

Just like early explorers who ventured to discover Victoria in her natural habitat, Longwood has supported several plant expeditions to South America to study the queen lily in the wild to help her thrive thousands of miles from her home.

The health and beauty of plants at Longwood and other botanical gardens depends on preserving and learning from the natural world.

Patrick Nutt holds Victoria seedsLongwood Gardens

Plants grown from seeds bred in captivity lose their vigor after a certain number of years.

By returning to South America, where Victoria plants have been flowering for millions of years Longwood was able to collect Victoria seeds to overcome the challenges of breeding wild plants in captivity.

Victoria fruitLongwood Gardens

When Victoria is grown in the water lily pools at Longwood Gardens seeds are gathered from the ripening fruits in September, the end of growing season.

Victoria seedsLongwood Gardens

After harvesting, young Victoria seeds need several months to ripen. The seeds are placed in a cool, dark place until they turn a brownish black color, then they are immersed in distilled water and kept at a temperature of 45 degrees Fahrenheit until sowing.

In early February, Longwood’s Victoria seeds are placed in moist sand to start germination.

Victoria seedlings sprout in shallow poolsLongwood Gardens

In her native habitat, a select number of Victoria seeds grow to adolescence in the shallow waters from the first seasonal rains.

At Longwood, the sprouting seedlings are placed in small tanks with soil and water in mid-to-late February to mimic early flood season rains.

Senior Horticulturist Tim Jennings takes care of growing plattersLongwood Gardens

Water lily expert and Senior Horticulturist Tim Jennings tends to the growing platters in his greenhouse behind the scenes.

Growing platters in indoor poolsLongwood Gardens

As young Victoria plants begin to expand, they are transferred to larger tanks with more room for the fast-growing leaves. By April they have become young leaf platters.

Longwood Garden's staff take care of growing plattersLongwood Gardens

By the end of May many of Longwood’s Victoria plants are overflowing their small tanks and are ready to move to outdoor heated display pools.

Longwood staff transport Victoria plants out to display pools (2012) by Gary ShanksLongwood Gardens

The transport of the delicate and spine-covered water platters from indoor to outdoor pools requires several trained gardeners working together.

The Longwood Hybrid (1960) by Gottlieb HampflerLongwood Gardens

VI. Victoria ‘Longwood Hybrid’

In 1961, Longwood was the first garden in America to successfully hybridize Victoria amazonica and Victoria cruziana, two species of giant water-platters.

For five decades since, Longwood has shared Victoria ‘Longwood Hybrid’ seeds with more than 140 gardens around the world.

Victoria regia botanical illustration (1962)Longwood Gardens

Longwood’s first water lily expert, Patrick Nutt, created the first Victoria hybrid by crossing the two Victoria species that grow wild in South America using techniques described in a century-old Victoria text.

Nutt used La Victoria Regia for instruction in the method and timing of hand pollination of Victoria.

Victoria 'Longwood hybrid' in Waterlily Display at Longwood Gardens (2004) by Larry AlbeeLongwood Gardens

Victoria ‘Longwood Hybrid’ is a cross between Victoria amazonica and Victoria cruziana. The hybrid combines the best qualities of her South American parents, with larger and more plentiful leaves and flowers, higher leaf margins, greater hardiness in cool temperatures, and resilience in wind and storms.

Victoria amazonicaLongwood Gardens

Victoria amazonica, one of the hybrid’s parents, is found in Brazil, Colombia, Bolivia, Guyana, and Peru. It has red pigmentation, small lip margins, and oval seeds. The sepals have prickles.

Victoria cruzianaLongwood Gardens

Victoria cruziana, the second of the hybrid’s parents, is found in Bolivia, Argentina, Uruguay, and Paraguay. It is light green with large upturned margins and round seeds. The sepals are nearly spineless.

Growing Victoria at Longwood Gardens by Larry AlbeeLongwood Gardens

To cross-fertilize Victoria amazonica and Victoria cruziana, a first-night flower from the female parent, Victoria cruziana, is dusted with the pollen of Victoria amazonica, the male parent, using a small brush.

This process mimics the work of scarab beetles that pollinate the giant lily in the wild.

Waterlilies at Longwood (1964)Longwood Gardens

Vintage footage of the development of Victoria 'Longwood Hybrid'

Victoria ‘Longwood Hybrid’ at Longwood Gardens (2019) by Carol DeGuiseppiLongwood Gardens

The final results are stunning.

Victoria ‘Longwood Hybrid’ combines the best qualities of her parents; she is stronger and more resilient; her leaves are bigger and can better handle adverse weather; she produces more and larger flowers; and she has a longer growing season since she tolerates cooler temperatures in both water and air.

Victoria 'Longwood hybrid' in Waterlily Display at Longwood Gardens (2004) by Larry AlbeeLongwood Gardens

Since her creation more than 60 years ago, Victoria ‘Longwood Hybrid' is now cultivated at botanical gardens around the world.

Aerial view of the Waterlily Display at Longwood GardensLongwood Gardens

Credits: Story

Copyright Longwood Gardens, 2020
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