Monday, October 1, 2012

Totally Seduced

From the top Photo by LAM
 Recently, I got the chance to work with Tim (the curator of Water-lilies at Longwood.) Since Tim's focus is aquatic plants, he does most of his work waist high in the lily pools. That morning, I followed suit, pushed my foot into the deep boot of the waders and fastened the overalls.  The water is dyed black to keep algae from growing, but it also keeps you from seeing the bottom. I knew it was shallow but I didn't want to look like a rookie. Tim handed me a pocket knife and hopped in.  I followed his lead. Then I felt the strange sensation of the water suctioning around my leg.  I braced for the cold, but the waders did their job and my skin stayed dry!  Unfortunately, at that moment, the knife slipped from my hand. Luckily it landed on a lily pad and I was able to retrieve it.  (Cue the memories of trying to seem like I knew how to start the leaf blower at USNA a few years back.) We waded around, studying each plant--Hardy water lilies and Tropical ones, night bloomers, day bloomers, you name it-- We discussed their origin, architecture and bloom cycle and explored the best way to pot them, prune them and clean them.  I watched with delight as bees, who were already carrying enormous bundles, buzzed back greedily for a bit more nectar.

It wasn't long before the mysterious Victoria Water Lily took center stage.  Ruling the pool, Victoria amazonica and Victoria cruziana hold court with their love child, the Longwood Hybrid. Again and again since my arrival at Longwood, I have puzzled over the nickname of this plant--"The Seductress."  This was the perfect day to find out the thought behind the name.

To begin, she is the largest water lily in existence.  Her round platter shaped leaves can measure up to 8 feet across and can bear a 40 lb. weight. The flowers are large too--about 12 inches.  This indicates she is strong--appropriately named for Queen Victoria--but a seductress?  I wasn't convinced.

the insides Photo by LAM
Continuing our lesson, Tim dissected one of the spent flowers, and thus unleashed the spell of the Victoria.  She first blooms at sunset- a bright pile of white petals exuding a sharp, alluring fragrance.  A scarab beetle is aroused by the scent and clumsily flies right into the folds of the flower.  Beneath the petals, there lies a cavernous chamber where the beetles eat.  While doing so, they shake the pollen from their bodies, to the floor of the chamber.  Slowly the pollen sinks inside her to the ovaries.  The flower's temperature rises and the beetles stay active.  The ambiance seems to make them lose track of time.  At dawn the petals close, trapping the beetles inside all day, with nothing to do but assure pollination.  On the second evening, the flower re-opens, now blushing a dark, unabashed shade of pink. The fresh air allows the beetles to gain their bearings and they depart.

She'll get you Photo by LAM
Next, we got to work--pruning the plant. This allowed me a closer look at the enormous leaves. Brazenly, she displays her ammunition--the undersides of the platters, the stems and even the buds, are covered, every centimeter, with incredibly sharp needles. The spines leave a tiny shard in your skin when you touch them. These allow her to push or slice every other plant out of the way.

After spending the day with the Victoria, here is my evaluation of her nickname: She's beautifully alluring. Her pollination story is spell binding. She's devilish enough to puncture your finger or your backside (the needles can poke through the fabric of the waders) and yet she leaves you looking forward to the next encounter. So fascinating is she, that all of the first year Longwood Graduate Fellows are now planning a trip to Brazil just to see her pollinated in her native Amazon...She sounds exactly like a seductress to me.

*For more information on the Victoria, please read Dr. Tomasz Anisko's blog post, Magic by Moonlight.