The Flower of Empire: An Amazonian Water Lily, the Quest to Make it Bloom, and the World it Created by Tatiana Holway
The Flower of Empire: An Amazonian Water Lily, the Quest to Make it Bloom, and the World it Created
by Tatiana Holway (Oxford University Press, 2013)
In 1837, while trekking through the Amazonian wilderness of British Guiana, one of Britain’s newest colonies in South America, botanist and explorer Robert Schomburgk suddenly encountered a monstrous water lily. Britain had developed a passion for plants (Wardian cases and greenhouses were modish for those who could afford them), and Queen Victoria had just taken the throne. It was only appropriate that the discovery be named in her honor.
Tatiana Holway’s The Flower of Empire relates the story of the water lily Victoria regia (syn. V. amazonica) and how it affected the British Empire. Complete with illustrations that demonstrate the grandeur of the water lily and Britain’s fascination with it, the book portrays Schomburgk’s—and indeed the Victorian era’s—fascination with flowers.
The giant water lily has leaves eight feet across and one nocturnal bloom that lasts 48 hours, first opening white, then reopening purplish pink before closing and sinking into the water. It was difficult to send the plant from Guiana back to the homeland, but Britons eagerly awaited the chance to cultivate it. The lily inspired the renovation of Kew Gardens in London and the creation of the Crystal Palace for the 1851 Great Exhibition, a showcase of the Empire’s power.
Holway’s book would make a thought-provoking gift for anyone interested in Victorian history, the process of exploring and classifying new plants, or simply a grand adventure story.