England’s Amazon Water Lily Made History

England’s Amazon water lily made history.

No one knew that a single flower, found in the Amazon by a plant collector, could create such a fury in nineteenth century England, but it did. That fury appeared with elements of desire, intrigue, competition, secrecy, pride, and even jealousy.

That flower was the Amazon lily, also called Victoria Regia, and now called Victoria amazonica, or giant waterlily.

All the important botanists in England wanted to grow it.

Robert Schomburgk, while charting the territory of Guiana for the Royal Geographical Society, found the flower in 1837 and named it after Queen Victoria.

Flower of EmpireTatiana Holway tells the story of this lily in her book The Flower of Empire. Sometimes the book reads like a novel. She has included many characters who encountered this flower, including, of course, the Queen herself.

Plant collectors were common in nineteenth century England. Many plants we enjoy in the garden today come from such exploration.

But nobody had ever seen anything like the Amazon lily whose flower was measured, not in inches, but in feet. Its leaves alone measured eight feet wide.

Holway writes, “The Queen’s flower [Victoria Regia] was the centerpiece of her colony [British Guiana] and rendered it the very epitome of Britain’s imperial destiny.”

Several horticulturists in the first half of the nineteenth century tried to grow the seeds from the plant. Schombruk had promised seeds to Joseph Paxton, head gardener for the Duke of Devonshire in Chatsworth, after the Queen.

Paxton succeeded in growing the plant. He even built a special greenhouse for the lily.

That greenhouse served as the model for the Crystal Palace, which he designed in 1851 for the Great Exhibition in London.

So the lily is not only important because no one in England had ever seen anything like it but also because its greenhouse inspired the design of the Crystal Palace.

from Victoria Regia, treatise by John Fisk Allen, illustrations by William Sharp Plate © The University of Kansas Spencer Museum of Art

From Victoria Regia, treatise by John Fisk Allen, illustrations by William Sharp
Plate © The University of Kansas Spencer Museum of Art

Here in America John Fisk Allen from Salem, Mass. grew seeds of this lily in 1853. Shortly after that he wrote a description of the slow growth of the plant, which eventually did flower for him.

This chromolithograph by artist William Sharp appeared in Allen’s work. [above]



















Paxton Sold ‘Hothouses for the Millions’

Joseph Paxton (1803-1865) was not only a gardener, but also an architect, famous for his glass structures.

He designed and built glass houses for his employer the Duke of Devonshire at Chatsworth, including one for the Duke’s orchid collection.

Eventually Paxton proposed a plan for the largest greenhouse England had ever seen, the Crystal Palace. This cast-iron and plate-glass structure was built to house London’s Great Exhibition from spring to fall in 1851 in Hyde Park.

From the start the goal for Paxton was to make the Chrystal Palace a permanent structure.

After the Exhibition it was rebuilt in an affluent south London suburb where it stood until fire destroyed it in 1936.

Paxton sought to help the middle class gardener, first through his garden magazine. Later he would make and sell his own inexpensive greenhouse called ‘Hothouses for the Millions.”  Paxton’s name appeared in an 1860 ad for his company’s hothouses. [below]

ad in 1860 issue of Gardeners' Chronicle

Ad in the 1860 issue of Gardeners’ Chronicle

Paxton had the same portable greenhouses at his own home near London which the Duke built for him.

Kate Colquhoun in her book about Paxton, A Thing in Disguise: The Visionary Life of Joseph Paxton writes that each greenhouse was “crowded with plants that had wintered in pots ready for ‘bedding out.’ There were tens of varieties of fruit and vegetables, including forced strawberries, early potatoes, kidney beans and melon.”

Thus he showed in his own gardening the usefulness of his “Hothouses for the Millions.”

Colquhoun says, “In this garden, as he had at Chatsworth, Paxton proved himself the greatest garden authority of his time.”

Paxton not only built, advertised, and sold his own greenhouses, but demonstrated by his own gardening in them how helpful they were to the ordinary middle class gardener.



Biography Depicts Humanity of Joseph Paxton

Head gardener at Chatsworth Joseph Paxton (1803-1865) assumes an important role in the history of the English garden.

He not only created new features for the Duke of Devonshire’s garden, making it one of the most famous gardens in England, but helped gardeners everywhere with his innovations in gardening under glass and his search for new plants for the garden.

Recently I finished the extraordinary biography of Paxton by Kate Colquhoun, A Thing in Disguise: The Visionary Life of Joseph Paxton.


Colquhoun won numerous awards for the book, her first. Her style of writing makes reading about Paxton in these pages most enjoyable. You feel like you are reading a novel.

Not to worry, however, because at the end of the book she gives detailed notes on her source material.

She refers to Paxton as “the greatest gardener of his time.” From his accomplishments she lists in chapter after chapter, the reader goes away in amazement that one man could do so much.

For me the central theme of the book centers on the idea that success comes, not from deeds performed however well and however many, but from a devotion and closeness to family and friends. Paxton exhibited that feature to the end of his life.  Colquhoun almost makes that kind of humanity the theme throughout the book.

One example is Paxton’s devotion to his employer the Duke for decades. Paxton had many other job opportunities as his work became more known in England. He turned them down to continue as the head gardener, and eventually, the one in charge of the estate at Chatsworth. He mourned the death of the Duke to such an extent that it made you feel that he was more than an employer.

Even while he built the Chrystal Palace and afterwards was elected to Parliament, Paxton sought to maintain a link to his own wife and children as well as his relationship with the Duke and his family.

Joseph Paxton’s greatness lies in his humanity.