Seldom do I find a work or study on a single genus bearable past a dozen or so pages, but Victoria The Seductress: A Cultural and Natural History of the World’s Greatest Water Lily had me in raptures from cover to cover. After learning about the lily’s discovery and ingenious biology, it will be difficult to consider Victoria a mere plant and not a sheer phenomenon from now on.
I decided to send Dr. Tomasz Aniśko, author of Victoria, some questions, and then share them here.
Antonio Reis: After working with Victoria for so long, do you feel like it is just a plant or something more?
Tomasz Aniśko: Yes, there is this physical object called Victoria which is nothing more than just a plant (although a big one and a rather short-lived one); but then there is the cultural meaning that developed over the past two centuries of our interacting with this object. It was this difficult-to-define “being” or “phenomenon” that got me interested enough to write a whole book about it. I would not want to write a book about just a plant. One could say that the book is probably more about the people who were “seduced” by Victoria than about the lily herself. My premeditated act of anthropomorphizing the lily in the book was intended to free the reader to think of “her” as something more than a plant.
A luscious Victoria bloom, which will be male one day and female the next.
AR: You flesh out the naming process quite vividly towards the beginning of the book. The plant was eventually dubbed in honor of Queen Victoria, whether certain botanists liked it or not. If you were given the chance to rename the genus, would you?
TA: I often playfully engaged myself in trying to imagine what other names Haenke, Bonpland, d’Orbigny, and Poeppig would have chosen if botanical history was fair. I am inclined to think that they, like Schomburgk, would honor one of their own sovereigns, so perhaps Josephinia or Bonapartea? Or perhaps, they would honor one of their own with Haenkia or Bonplandia. As for myself, since this lily is a sister of Euryale, one of the Gorgons, I would think Medusa or Stheno be a logical choice. But instead we have Victoria, a name (however unfair) that served the plant very well and I would not advocate changing it in the name of some historic justice or accuracy. Ironically, if the future research shows that Victoria and Euryale should be reclassified as species of Nymphaea, her regal and controversial name may disappear altogether.
AR: You’ve seen Victoria flourishing in both the wild and in captivity. Does it seem to prefer one environment to another? Do you prefer it in one environment to another?
TA: Seeing Victoria in these settings (artificial vs. natural) is really a very different experience. Natural – the immensity of the surrounding landscape, strange sounds and smells, enduring the dangers or at least discomforts, lily’s connection to/dependence on various physical/biological processes taking place the environment. But at times it may be disappointing too: plants are not thriving, or after a while new sites look just like the previous ones. In captivity, she usually looks (with rare exceptions) well groomed and cared for but at the same time very foreign, exotic, out of place, strange, unreal, impossible to comprehend. What amazes (and amuses) me is seeing what various structures, devices, facilities, processes, our culture invented just so we can see and get close to this lily in captivity. As for Victoria, she obviously prefers her natural habitat, where she has thrived for millions of years without anybody’s help. In the wild one can see hundreds and thousands of plants together, a sight never seen in cultivation, where at best we can have several plants in one place. An analogy of seeing elephants in a zoo and in the wild might be helpful here.
|Have you ever seen leaves so big?|
AR: Do you think an amateur home grower might be able to succeed in raising this plant? If not, what might be a suitable alternative?
TA: Dedicated amateurs have successfully grown Victoria for more than a century, but “dedicated” is the key word here. Very few of them do it today. Victoria has never become (and never will) a “garden plant” and instead retained her regal, independent, never-tamed status. Hence the book does not attempt to provide “how-to” instructions for growing the lily at home. Many (the best ones) botanical gardens around the world provide an easy way to enjoy Victoria without going through the trouble of building (and often heating) your own pond or pool. They all consider the lily the most prized plant in their collections and pride themselves on their ability to care for her. In fact, by writing the book I wanted to create something for those of us who cannot grow the lily but may see her in a botanical garden or (if lucky) during a tour of the Amazon and would like to have something at home that would allow to enter and wonder in Victoria’s amazing world.
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