The Flower of Empire: An Amazonian Water Lily, The Quest to Make it Bloom, and the World it Createdby Tatiana Holway
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… See more details below
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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.
"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
- Oxford University Press, USA
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