Longwood’s Lovely Waterlilies

The metropolitan Philadelphia area is a gardening mecca, and I always squeeze in a few garden tours when visiting my daughter at school. So when Parent’s Weekend concluded last week, I headed off to a wonderful afternoon at Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square, PA.

 Late September is a great time to visit many public gardens, and I was overwhelmed with the beautiful borders of cannas, dahlias and grasses, a Dahlia Society show, and the stunning greenhouses. But the most awesome spectacle at this time of year are the water gardens of Longwood, whose peak bloom time is from late July through September.

Tucked into a protected courtyard within the Main Conservatory, five pools feature more than 100 types of day and night-blooming tropical waterlilies, hardy waterlilies, lotuses, giant water platters and other aquatic and bog plants, such as papyrus and rice plants.

The waterlilies bloom in hues ranging from blues to whites, yellows, reds, and oranges. Some have striking foliage streaked with maroon. I was duly inspired to try my hand at growing waterlilies in my humble home pond next year. But the most dramatic plant at Longwood defies home use, and is cited as one of the wonders of the plant kingdom: the giant waterlily ‘Victoria’.

This Amazonian wonder (below) features leaf pads that grow to a diameter of 6-10 feet, and each lily may have 10 pads at one time, consuming an area 30 feet across. The leaves emerge as prickly shells and then unfurl at a rate of as much as two feet per day. Fully open, they can support the weight of a grown man, and the undersides are covered in spines, apparently to protect the plants from fish and manatees.


Victoria's flowers are enormous and a little bizarre. As full buds, they begin to generate their own heat, and then open to attract pollinating beetles with a tropical perfume reminiscent of pineapple, oranges and jasmine. The lilies start out as female flowers but develop into male flowers on their second night, at which point they have changed in color from white to a rose pink. On their third day, pollinated, they sink to the river bottom to grow seeds that, when mature, float.

Since the Victorias crave the heat and humidity of the tropics, they are difficult to grow in our northern climates. At Longwood, these giants are started from seed in late winter and planted in submerged planters at the end of May. They grow rapidly in Longwood’s heated pools where the water is maintained at a constant 86 degrees. In an unheated pond, you would see them run out of steam in September with cooling temperatures, but at Longwood, the heating system allows robust displays as late as November.

Victoria water lilies were first observed in Bolivia by the Bohemian botanist Thaddaeus Haenke in 1801, and brought to Europe in the early 1800s. They were named in honor of Queen Victoria, who visited the first flowering plant at Kew in 1852. The two original species of Victoria (amazonica and cruziana) were brought to Longwood in the 1950s. Longwood’s aquatic plant expert, Patrick Nutt, succeeded in crossing the two species to produce a third Victoria lily, Longwood Hybrid, that is even more vigorous than its parents and produces a pad that is larger, with a pronounced and colorful rim. This fantastic waterlily draws throngs of visitors to Longwood every summer, and spurred the publication of Victoria: The Seductress by Dr. Tomasz Aniśko, curator of plants at Longwood Gardens, who oversees the proper naming and identification of plants, coordinates plant trials, and leads plant exploration efforts.

To see a time-lapse video of Victoria blooming at Longwood, visit http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2013/03/night-gardens/time-lapse-video