727: The Flower of Empire by Tatiana Holway

by Gerard


727.6580942: Holway, Tatiana. The Flower of Empire: An Amazonian Water Lily, the Quest to Make it Bloom, and the World it Created. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2013. 239 pp. ISBN 978-0-19-537389-9.

Dewey Breakdown:

  • 700: Fine Arts
  • 720: Architecture
  • 727: Buildings for education and research purposes
  • 727.6: Museum buildings
  • 727.65: Science museums
  • 727.658: Botanical gardens
  • +0942: England and Wales

In 1837, Robert Hermann Schomburgk risked his life and his livelihood on a commission for the newly formed Royal Geographical Society. His mission was to explore the rivers and geology of the new South American colony of British Guiana and report back his findings. While fighting through waterfalls, clogged rivers, and epic swarms of mosquitoes, he encountered what he called a “vegetable wonder.” It was a water lily almost 10 feet in diameter with a giant, beautiful pink flower. He named it the Victoria lily in honor of the heir apparent to the throne at the time. The flower and its subsequent effect in revitalizing the botanical sciences in England are the subject of Tatiana Holway’s Flower of Empire.

While Schomburgk was being eaten alive in the South American jungle, British botany was experiencing a bit of a renaissance. Upper crust types were expected to keep immaculate gardens, keep up on flowering practices, and generally contribute to the beautification of the country. But, ironically, the country’s best arboretum—the Kew Gardens—was in a major decline by the 1820s and 1830s. The first champion of the science, Sir Joseph Banks, built the Gardens into a powerhouse of research and beauty, but after his death, the gardens fell into extreme disrepair.

Once the giant water lily was first introduced to scientists in Europe, the race was on germinate a specimen from seed for public display. The flower, after all, was named after the Queen (she ascended to the throne the year the flower was discovered). In 1840, the royal family adopted the Kew Gardens as the Royal Botanical Gardens and hopes were high. So when, Sir William Hooker was tapped as the first official Director of the Gardens, we went about tidying up the joint and admitting the public with gusto again. Chief among his interests was getting the lily growing. His failed attempt to bring the lily to flower in 1847 only made him try harder and get help from the surrounding botanical community. Gone were the days of scientific isolationism. If the flower was to grow, they would need lots of help. Finally, by April 1849, a gardener employed by the Duke of Devonshire, Joseph Paxton, got the flower to show itself on British soil. The lily’s coup de grace was an exhibit in the Crystal Palace at the Great Exhibition of 1851. The technology and care needed to shepherd such a plant to fruition this far outside its natural habitat was astounding.

While Holway’s book is ostensibly about the creation of the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew, there is so much more here. There is a thorough history of Schomburgk’s expeditions to South America and a wealth of background on both the botanical sciences and British botanical scientists alike. While the obsession with the lily (and other plants mentioned) was not quite on par with the Dutch tulip bubble of the 1630s, it still captivated the attention of the nation, and Holway does a very good job of creating that sense throughout the book. It does get a bit long-winded when going into the minutiae of botanical discovery and identification, but those bits aren’t that long to begin with. If you’re a fan of architecture or science history, then this one is for you.