In planning my new garden some 7 years ago, a special consideration was to provide an area to grow Victoria waterlilies. The giants of the water lily family (Nymphaeaceae), with some of the largest entire leaves in the vegetable kingdom, these plants always draw attention.
So the Victoria pond was dug. A large formal pond surrounded by lawn. As things do, it didn’t end up quite as planned. It became slightly bigger than anticipated – in fact as a friend pointed out, it is now the size as an Olympic swimming pool (no, I don’t live in the suburbs!). A major storm, soon after it was completed, washed the surrounding topsoil into the pond. The grass around the pond has never established well on the subsoil that was left to this day.
In hindsight these changes have been great bonuses. A pond can never be too big – particularly if it is designed for growing some big plants. And a deep layer of topsoil on the pond floor is an essential ingredient.
Over the last few years, I have been growing a lotus and the Gorgon plant (Euryale ferox) in my pond. The lotus has done a little too well – as lotus do – and I am constantly battling to keep it in its allotted location. It is a native Australian cutivar with thin stringy rhizomes rather than the fat juicy rhizomes typical of Asian plants. So unfortunately I can’t use them for cooking (I do enjoy lotus ‘root’ in salads, soups and stir fries). The plant is however very beautiful, with deep pink flowers and reddish young leaves. It starts into growth later and dies down much later than many of the Asian cultivars which I also grow.
The Gorgon plant has been fascinating to cultivate. Until the discovery of the Victoria waterlilies, it was regarded as the largest waterlily in the world. From India, Bangladesh, Burma, China, South Korea, Taiwan, Japan, and the Russian Federation, this plant is widely grown for the nutritious seeds. You will find them in many Asian grocery stores sold as ‘Fox Nuts’.
The leaves lie flat on the pond. They are very thick and leathery. They are almost impossible to lift off the water’s surface. Bright green above and purple beneath, leaves are covered in spines on both sides. At the height of summer (late January and February), when it is very hot, very humid and sunny, the flowers will appear above the water surface. They are small, starry and deep purple-blue. An environmental stimulus encourages simultaneous flowering on the plants. This is a rare occurrence in my garden and happens only on a handful of days each year. Sometimes the flower buds will pierce a leaf as they come up. However, generally the flowers open under water, and never break the water surface.
An annual plant, seedlings generally germinate in the pond in autumn; grow very little over winter; and then shoot into growth with the warmer, wetter weather. The secret is to plant seedlings at about 5 metre centres and then to keep them well fed. I have been using fertiliser tablets developed especially for waterlilies – placing 2 to 3 per plant at approximately 2 weekly intervals. Space and fertiliser results in big leaves.
Each year I have tried to improve on the previous year’s record. Last year was a complete ‘write off’ due to work commitments at critical periods. However the year before, I had my biggest record to date, producing leaves of some 1.2 metres across. They were amazing. References note that leaves can grow to some 1.5 metres across, so I still have some way to go.
Leaves of the Gorgon Plant tend to space themselves out over the pond creating a dramatic pattern across the water surface. This resulted in a puzzled visitor asking how I stopped the plants from floating around and kept them spaced so evenly. He though each leaf was actually a floating plant.
Fertilising these plants in my pond involves swimming down a central “swimming lane” between plants; diving down and digging a hole; placing the fertiliser; and finally tamping the soil back down – all while holding one’s breath. Practice makes perfect. Plastic footwear is recommended as the decomposing leaves of the Gorgon Plant, are covered in sharp spines and these litter the base of the pond.
Euryale ferox has been fun to grow, but Victoria Waterlilies are my long term goal. Why stop at 1.5 metres when you can go for 2?
As a boy, I was been fascinated by these plants when visiting the steamy, heated conservatories in which they were grown. Some years ago on a trip to Manaus, in the Amazonas state of Brazil, I got to see Victoria amazonica growing in the wild. Here in the quiet lagoons and backwaters off the Rio Negras, these plants make quite a spectacle. I can understand why early explorers were so exited by their discovery. The race was soon on to bloom these plants in cultivation. This soon lead to magnificent conservatories being built, using revolutionary engineering techniques and radical new materials.
There are two species in the genus Victoria – Victoria amazonica (syn. regia) from Brazil, Guyana and Bolivia and Victoria cruziana from Paraguay, and Northern Argentina. Both species have the large leaves with characteristic upturned margins. The leaves are bright green above and pinkish below. Unlike Euryales, spines occur only on the leaf undersides. A hybrid between the two species called ‘Longwood’ is also widely grown.
Victoria waterlilies generally grow as annuals. However some individuals can live a little longer when conditions are ideal. As you would expect, Victoria amazonica grows particularly well in the humid tropics of north Queensland. Plants flower, set seed, and then these fall to the pond floor and germinate. Thus plants keep growing over many generations – as they do in the wild. On visits to North Queensland, I can remember seeing these plants in many gardens. However when I tried to locate seed or plants recently, I found some difficulty. I am told that toad tadpoles are now eating the young seedlings, thus preventing regeneration occurring.
Growing the plants from seed is a little tricky. As seedlings they have specific nutritional needs. Leaves can lack substance and appear to dissolve if these are not met. As plants get bigger, they seem to get hardier.
I have been working in Singapore for a few years and Victoria amazonica is grown in the National Botanic Gardens over there. I noticed on my last visit that the Victoria Waterlilies were now growing particularly lushly in the ponds of the ginger garden. Aung, the curator of this area, tells me that they are now fertilising the Victorias with pelletised chicken manure. It is wrapped in newspaper and pushed down into the soil around the roots. However an additional ingredient is iron tablets – those sold for at the pharmacy or supermarket for human consumption. The addition of iron certainly seems to make the difference. I will be trying pelletised chicken manure on all my waterlilies and lotus this year as growers in Australia have also told me this is producing great results.
Well, I have finally located some Victoria seed, and this year I hope to grow a Victoria Waterlily in my Victoria pond. I have purchased a large bag of pelletised chicken manure and some iron tablets. I will keep you updated……..