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A vegetable wonder!

By Tatiana Holway

“GIGANTIC FLOWER–NEW DISCOVERY!” “A Vegetable Wonder!” “A Vegetable Prodigy!” “A plant of most extraordinary beauty, fragrant, and of dimensions previously unheard of in the whole vegetable kingdom!”

With headlines and taglines and raves such as these fanning out from Fleet Street in the autumn of 1837, it would be hard to overestimate the sensation surrounding the immense water lily found earlier that year in the remote South American colony of British Guiana and subsequently named Victoria regia in honor of the empire’s newly crowned queen. Within days of Victoria’s introduction to members of a small botanical society, particulars about the plant began appearing in leading learned publications. Within weeks, respectable periodicals were picking up the story and spreading the news. And within months, the press itself was marveling over the “great interest” that reports about the water lily were exciting–and then repeating those reports yet again so that “a plant of such magnificence may be generally known.” No doubt about it, Victoria regia was celebrity–but a singularly invisible one.

Growing profusely on wide open surfaces of inaccessible, alligator-infested swamps all over the vast, uncharted Amazon basin, the plant had been sighted by only a couple of European explorers before Robert Schomburgk stumbled upon it while attempting to map terra incognita for the Royal Geographic Society. Since his eye-witness account is the one that was recounted over and over, it’s worth reproducing again here:

It was on the 1st of January of this year [1837], while contending with the difficulties nature interposed in different forms to our progress up the river Berbice, that we arrived at a point where the river expanded and formed a currentless basin; some object on the southern extremity of this basin attracted my attention; it was impossible to form any idea of what it could be, and animating the crew to increase the rate of their paddling, we were shortly afterwards opposite the object which had raised my curiosity—a vegetable wonder! All calamities were forgotten: I felt as a botanist, and felt myself rewarded. A gigantic leaf, from five to six feet in diameter, salver-shaped, with a broad rim of light green above, and a vivid crimson below, resting upon the water: quite in character with the wonderful leaf was the luxuriant flower, consisting of many hundred petals, passing in alternate tints from pure white to rose and pink. The smooth water was covered with them; I rowed from one to another, and always observed something new to admire.

He also collected specimens (which disintegrated) and produced colored drawings (which didn’t) and these, along with this account and some additional botanical details, are what eventually arrived in London, where the buzz about the plant got going and the line between publicity and puffery blurred.

Take, for example, the size of the water lily: Schomburgk measured leaves as large as “six feet five inches in diameter” and flowers “fifteen inches across.” That’s big. But when subsequent versions stated that “its leaves measure above eighteen feet, and its flower nearly four feet in circumference,” the plant seemed even bigger. Amplified by epithets like “stunning,” “stupendous,” and “astounding,” ideas about the “vegetable wonder” could keep growing and growing, unchecked.

Schomburgk’s drawings didn’t much help put the scale of Victoria regia in perspective–at least not beyond the tiny, elite social and scientific circles where the original life-size drawings were initially displayed. Until the water lily was successfully cultivated in Britain, which didn’t occur for another dozen years, Schomburgk’s were the sole images on which all others were based-including the incredibly overblown rendering of Victoria regia that’s reproduced here. Published in early 1838, in the best-selling Penny Magazine, the picture looks like something straight out of the National Enquirer. But the fact that The Penny Magazine was issued by the earnestly educational Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge gives one pause. With articles on natural history, political economy, exemplary individuals, improvements in hygiene, and other such solid stuff, the illustrated weekly was intended to edify the working and lower-middle classes, not titillate or mislead them. And with Schomburgk’s account of the plant reprinted on the very same page as the picture, it doesn’t appear that the SDUK was attempting to sensationalize Victoria regia any more than it already was.

Instead, maybe it was a sense of wonder that the illustration was aiming to capture and to convey. Confronted with the Lilliputian explorers coming upon the water lily, ordinary Britons might begin to apprehend what only a few extraordinary travelers ever saw. Alexander von Humboldt was one of them, and the first to undertake a deliberately scientific expedition to equatorial South America. There, he said, “man and his productions disappear, so to speak, in the midst of a wild and outsize nature.” Charles Darwin was also overwhelmed. On first seeing the verdant riot of vegetation of Brazil, he wrote that “while viewing such scenes, one feels the impossibility that any description should come near the mark,–much less be overdrawn.” And when a plant-collector named Robert Spruce came across the “vegetable wonder” over a decade after Schomburgk’s encounter, he too was awed: “The aspect of the Victoria, in its native waters, is so new and extraordinary,” he said, “that I am at a loss to what to compare it.”

So perhaps the representation of Victoria regia in The Penny Magazine isn’t so overblown. Oversized, yes — at least as far as the plant is concerned. But overdone, no — not so far as the impression it made. Just imagine, then, the reaction when the water lily was finally successfully cultivated in Britain and the press started describing “the flowering for the first time in the old world, of one of those vegetable productions whose existence has so long been considered to have its basis only in the inflated fancies of moonstruck travelers.”

Tatiana Holway is an independent scholar and academic consultant with a doctorate in Victorian literature and society. She is the author of The Flower of Empire: An Amazonian Water Lily, The Quest to Make it Bloom, and the World it Created and several studies of Dickens and popular culture. She also serves on the advisory board for the Nineteenth-Century Collections Online archive. Currently, she lives outside of Boston, where she pursues a passion for gardening.

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Image credit: The Penny Magazine, January 20, 1838. Public domain.

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