Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Longwood Gardens

It does my heart good to know that I can spend the day at a place like Longwood Gardens, talk about the detailed history of two species of waterlilies (well, “Victorias” more properly, of the genus Victoria) and get paid for it. I was visiting Tomasz Anisko, author of When Perennials Bloom and Longwood’s curator. Tomasz was kind enough to show me behind the scenes and tell me about plans for an upcoming book on Victoria, a genus of two plants that was all the rage--and the source of controversy and scandal--in the 19th century after it was discovered on the Amazon and named after the British queen. (French plant explorers who felt they found the plants first were none too happy with the British name--perhaps it should be the genus Napoleon?) If you’re like me, you’re vaguely aware of Victorias because you’ve seen a cheesy photo of a baby or mermaid cavorting with one of the huge leaves. Great dukes and estate owners in the US and UK competed with each other to grow the plants after introduction--you needed a savvy garden staff (they’re tropical plants after all) and a huge pool of water in which to grow them. A very enterprising publisher in Massachusetts published an oversized book in 1854 with massive plates of the plants—this book is now the holy grail of garden book collectors, with prices up to $70,000. I don’t think Timber will be reprinting it!

I’ve only seen Victorias in person a few times in my life, and I have to say that Longwood’s display is the best anywhere--they even dye the water black to show off the leaves and flowers to full effect. Longwood is also the progenitor of the best interspecific hybrid between the two species, and Tomasz’s upcoming book means to celebrate this fact and all other things Victoria. Thanks to Longwood gardens for the photos—you can read more about their Victorias at the Longwood blog.

So, can anyone guess what fish, fowl, or beast the spines on the leaves and flowers are meant to protect against? The first commenter to get it right will get a free copy of Perry Slocum’s Waterlilies and Lotuses by Timber—I’ll identify the right answer in the comments and ask the winner to send me an e-mail with a mailing address.

Neal Maillet, publisher

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