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Water lily GIANTS at Longwood Gardens

Amanda Mackinnon

Amanda Mackinnon

November 15, 2013

Longwood Gardens in Pennsylvania, USA is a sheer delight to visit. It’s one of those places that’s so good that it’s hard to pick a highlight. However, one of my favourite displays was the water lily feature. Once you’ve wound your way through the amazing conservatory and caught your breath again (yes, it’s that good), head out the back to find these amazing giants floating silently in their dark pools.

The water lily pond at Longwood Gardens

The water lily pond at Longwood Gardens

Victoria amazonica with Nymphaea 'Shirley Bryne' in the foreground

Victoria amazonica with Nymphaea ‘Shirley Bryne’ in the foreground

Longwood is home to a fantastic collection of the world’s largest water lily – ‘Victoria’ (Victoria amazonica). Originally described in 1801, ‘Victoria’ is the only living plant that can be identified above Earth by satellite imagery. Growing in the remote flooded lakes of South America, the lily pads can reach up to 8 feet across and choke the lakes when in their peak.

Yearly flooding of South America’s 2 main river systems results in thousands of nutrient rich flooded lakes that allow ‘Victoria’ to grow and thrive. Its roots bury themselves in the dark mud, stems reach up through the water and the leaves and flowers sit on the water surface open to the sun. The lifespan of these beauties depends upon the rise and fall of the water and the strength of each plants root system.

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‘Victoria’’s extreme size, beauty and structure is what fascinates plant enthusiasts. Sitting quietly by the pond at Longwood nearly everyone who walks through the entrance ‘ooos and ahhs’ when they catch site of the display.

Longwood Gardens first began growing them in 1957 and have 2 species that grow in the wild and also a newer Victoria ‘Longwood’ hybrid. The new hybrid is stronger than the others, has bigger leaves, more flowers, increased tolerance to adverse weather and tolerates cooler temperatures.

Longwood Gardens USA 010The water lilies are divided in the spring every 1-3 years as required. Whilst the foliage dies back in October the rhizomes spend the winter in the pools. Each flower lasts 3-5 days, interesting the scarab beetle which travels from one flower to another drawn by scent and warmth. They cover themselves with pollen before flying to the next flower. This cross fertilization ensures the species remains vibrant and alive.

At Longwood the water lily ponds are treated with a black dye called Deep Water. The dye shades the surface of the water and prevents algae growth. It also hides the mechanics of the pond and provides a dark backdrop to highlight the stunning flowers.

During my visit, gardeners were in the ponds pruning some of the larger leaves of the water lilies to make way for the younger ones to develop. They explained that they size of the ponds is a restriction and the larger leaves have to be regularly removed to allow the plants to send up newer foliage.

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Gardeners pruning the Victoria water lilies at Longwood Gardens

The waterlily display is a special location, framed by Longwood’s majestic conservatory. You could spend an hour taking in the ponds and not be disappointed. You can find out more at Longwood Gardens.

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Catherine Stewart
9 years ago

These look like you could ‘walk on water’ if you used them as stepping stones!

9 years ago

I was fascinated to read about the black dye, Amanda. When I visited there weren’t any plants in the lily ponds but they still had a dark mysterious look about them, particularly when compared to some of the other ponds which are bright blue. I had assumed that the lily pond lining was black to create that effect.