The Flower of Empire: An Amazonian Water Lily, The Quest to Make it Bloom, and the World it Created

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Overview

In 1837, while charting the Amazonian country of Guiana for Great Britain, German naturalist Robert Schomburgk discovered an astounding "vegetable wonder"—a huge water lily whose leaves were five or six feet across and whose flowers were dazzlingly white. In England, a horticultural nation with a mania for gardens and flowers, news of the discovery sparked a race to bring a live specimen back, and to bring it to bloom. In this extraordinary plant, named Victoria regia for the newly crowned queen, the ...

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Overview

In 1837, while charting the Amazonian country of Guiana for Great Britain, German naturalist Robert Schomburgk discovered an astounding "vegetable wonder"—a huge water lily whose leaves were five or six feet across and whose flowers were dazzlingly white. In England, a horticultural nation with a mania for gardens and flowers, news of the discovery sparked a race to bring a live specimen back, and to bring it to bloom. In this extraordinary plant, named Victoria regia for the newly crowned queen, the flower-obsessed British had found their beau ideal.

In The Flower of Empire, Tatiana Holway tells the story of this magnificent lily, revealing how it touched nearly every aspect of Victorian life, art, and culture. Holway's colorful narrative captures the sensation stirred by Victoria regia in England, particularly the intense race among prominent Britons to be the first to coax the flower to bloom. We meet the great botanists of the age, from the legendary Sir Joseph Banks, to Sir William Jackson Hooker, director of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, to the extravagant flower collector the Duke of Devonshire. Perhaps most important was the Duke's remarkable gardener, Joseph Paxton, who rose from garden boy to knight, and whose design of a series of ever-more astonishing glass-houses—one, the Big Stove, had a footprint the size of Grand Central Station—culminated in his design of the architectural wonder of the age, the Crystal Palace. Fittingly, Paxton based his design on a glass-house he had recently built to house Victoria regia. Indeed, the natural ribbing of the lily's leaf inspired the pattern of girders supporting the massive iron-and-glass building.

From alligator-laden jungle ponds to the heights of Victorian society, The Flower of Empire unfolds the marvelous odyssey of this wonder of nature in a revealing work of cultural history.

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Editorial Reviews

The New York Times Book Review - Dominique Browning
…Holway makes a lively case for this botanical colossus…what's most fascinating about this tale is the way Holway twists and turns it through other botanical developments, from the invention of Wardian cases (which made transporting plants viable) to the manic obsession with flowers of 19th-century Britain, a nation in the midst of the Industrial Revolution.
From the Publisher
"According to Tatiana Holway in The Flower of Empire, the Amazon water lily created a whole new world. That may seem a bit of a stretch, but Holway makes a lively case for this botanical colossus. . . . But what's most fascinating about this tale is the way Holway twists and turns it through other botanical developments, from the invention of Wardian cases (which made transporting plants viable) to the manic obsession with flowers of 19th-century Britain, a nation in the midst of the Industrial Revolution." —-New York Times

"The discovery of the large water lily Victoria amazonica fascinated the botantical and social world of Great Britian and beyond. Holway takes many divergent paths, introducing the personalities involved and the botanical, architectural, and cultural themes centered on this fantastic water lily. Recommended." —CHOICE

"Written with great verve and eloquence, Tatiana Holway tells her story of botanical adventure as robustly as the botanist who undertook the South American discovery of the great water lily, Victoria regia, and the cultural obsession it inspired. As a piece of horticultural and social history of Victorian England, The Flower of Empire is splendid: by turns surprising, exciting, and illuminating." —John Lahr

"Tatiana Holway's wonderful book about the Victoria regia is fascinating, impeccably written, and elegantly designed. Until I read it I had been most fascinated by the Chinese handkerchief tree, Davidia involucrata, but Holway's book has led me reconsider." —Simon Winchester

"A fresh and often witty account in which the author quotes freely from correspondence and periodicals to create a lively portrait of Victorian England and of the widespread passion for flowers and gardening at that time." —Kirkus Reviews

"Tatiana Holway has a fascinating story of Victorian England to tell about a giant Amazonian water lily, the attempts to get it to grow in England and how it became the inspiration for the Crystal Palace. She has brought to life the extraordinary characters involved, from the German scientific traveler who came across the lily on New Year's day 1837 in the interior of the then British Guiana to the botanical elite of Great Britain who tried to make it bloom." —Peter Rivière, Oxford University

"Tatiana Holway has written a lively account of a fascinating series of events in Victorian England: the discovery and cultivation of an enormous tropical water lily that was named (after learned discussion) Victoria Regia, for the young and popular queen. The race to make the Amazonian flower bloom in England captured the public imagination, involved rivalries and disputes among leading figures, and had far-reaching consequences. With scholarly depth and humor, and in unfailingly readable prose, Holway shows how a botanical oddity could become an imperial, cultural, and political symbolic expression of the age." —Steven Marcus, George Delacorte Professor in the Humanities Emeritus, Columbia University

"Teeming with intimate glimpses into the physically challenging world of international plant collecting, as well as the petty intricacies of royal politics.. Holway's chronicle of Victorian society and the age of scientific discovery is a vibrant, revelatory exposé." —Booklist

Library Journal
The central narrative of Holway's book pivots around an 1837 British discovery in Guiana of an immense water lily, and the mission to make one bloom in England. Along with the story of a quest for germination is the author's equally appealing description of the botany-obsessed Victorian England where the building of glass greenhouses influenced the design of the Crystal Palace in Hyde Park for the Great Exposition of 1851. Holway's roots as a Dickensian scholar prove useful as she reaches into Nicholas Nickleby to describe London. She also makes use of the letters of Joseph Paxton, head gardener to the Duke of Devonshire, who built futuristic "stoves" of glass and iron to re-create the environment of the tropics. Holway traces the wonder of these greenhouses in chronicling the attempts of British horticulturists to have "culture fully dominate nature." Unfortunately, she largely ignores the plight of the natives of the colonies explored and glosses over any criticism of the egoism of empire-obsessed Britain. VERDICT Despite the title's implication of a narrow focus, this history of the impact of the British Empire's horticultural ambitions will interest readers of biographies as well as students of industrialization, architecture, and, of course, botany, although they may be disappointed with the book's polite treatment of the imperial project at large.—Kelsey Berry Philpot, Holderness Sch., NH
Kirkus Reviews
A deftly told tale of a magnificent water lily that, during the Victorian age, captured the attention of British horticulturalists, wowed the British public and became the inspiration for the Crystal Palace, then the largest building in the world. Dickens scholar Holway has assembled a terrific cast of characters, including the German Robert Schomburgk, hired by the Royal Geographic Society to survey the new colony of British Guiana and discoverer of the flower on the River Berbice in 1837; John Lindley, the botanical authority who classified the find as Victoria regia; and Sir Joseph Banks, the force behind the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew. Getting a viable plant to England took years, and getting it to thrive and bloom there led to competition between Joseph Paxton, the multitalented head gardener at Chatsworth, and Sir William Jackson Hooker, director of the Royal Botanic Gardens. The star of the saga is Paxton, an ambitious individual with little education who figured out what the plant needed to survive, flourish and bloom. He designed and had built the large plate-glass–and-wrought-iron building that protected it, inspired, as he said, by the structure of the leaves of the plant itself. Paxton, who was later knighted, went on to use those same features to design the enormous Crystal Palace erected in Hyde Park to house the Great Exhibition in 1851. Not essential to the story but a happy bonus is Holway's description of the exhibition, which featured not just nature and art, but a cluttered mass of industrial objects from around the world. A fresh and often witty account in which the author quotes freely from correspondence and periodicals to create a lively portrait of Victorian England and of the widespread passion for flowers and gardening at that time.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780195373899
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA
  • Publication date: 4/9/2013
  • Pages: 328
  • Sales rank: 1,017,732
  • Product dimensions: 6.20 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.30 (d)

Meet the Author

Tatiana Holway is an independent scholar and academic consultant with a doctorate in Victorian literature and society. Author of 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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Table of Contents

Prologue: Victoria's Floras

1. Terra Incognita

2. Perils and Wonders

3. A Floral Sensation

4. An International Tempest

5. Return to the Wild

6. Cultivating Kew Gardens

7. His Grace and His Gardener

8. The Flowering of Chatsworth

9. Golden Square

10. Evergreens

11. Salvaging Kew Gardens

12. Trading Favors

13. Trials and Errors

14. The Great Stove

15. Reviving Kew Gardens

16. Return to El Dorado

17. Paxton, Inc.

18. First Bloom

19. Nature's Engineer

20. Empire under Glass

Epilogue: Victoria Regia Redux

Notes

Bibliography

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 8, 2013

    Junglemagic

    MY DEN!!!!

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