Victoria's tropical marvel

May 18, 2001

An explorer seeking El Dorado found 'a vegetable wonder' that amazed Britain and helped inspire the Crystal Palace, writes D. Graham Burnett.

This month is the 150th anniversary of the opening of the Crystal Palace, the glittering 7-hectare vault of glass and iron that housed the Great Exhibition. All the Millennium Dome was not, the Crystal Palace was: a popular shrine to modernity, a cathedral of manufactures, an architectural emblem of British global prowess and domestic sensibilities.

In May 1837, however, that vast glass edifice was not yet a twinkle in anyone's eye. Least of all Robert Schomburgk, a young, anglicised Prussian sweating out a tropical spring in British Guiana.

He had reason to sweat. Commissioned two years earlier by the recently founded Royal Geographical Society to explore the southern interior, Schomburgk had mostly flopped. He got sick on his first trip upriver, and his next crew refused to take him past the first waterfall.

The maps he was sending to the RGS looked sorry: little squiggles at the coast of a vast terra incognita down by Brazil and Venezuela. In those blank regions, Sir Walter Raleigh had, more than 200 years earlier, sketched a glittering palace, the city of the "lost Inca" - El Dorado. Schomburgk was supposed to be chasing the fantasy, but instead, he was sitting out the rains in Georgetown.

On May 11 1837, he wrote a letter to his sponsors about his most recent fiasco, an excursion up the Berbice River during which his partner had drowned. But on the upside, Schomburgk explained, he had stumbled on a big flower. Really big. It was a water lily. But not your standard Nymphea. This floral behemoth had leaves the size of a dinner table and flowers one could weigh on a provision scale like a leg of lamb. "A vegetable wonder," Schomburgk declared breathlessly.

His boatmen were less impressed. For years, local people had ground the plant's seeds into an ersatz flour. But Schomburgk had grander plans for those seeds. He wanted to mail some back to London in the hope that an enterprising cultivator would be able to grow the flower in one of the new tropical greenhouses. To make the point, Schomburgk posted a sketch of the flower along with his letter.

His timing was impeccable. A month later, the young Victoria took the throne, and Schomburgk's flower became the RGS's gift to the new queen: she was presented with a large painting of the newly christened Victoria regia .

The race to grow Victoria for Victoria would take more than a decade. The flower was fussy, needing lightly circulating soft water kept at an even, high temperature. The man who managed all this was the Victorian fixer Joseph Paxton, the gardener of the duke of Devonshire. It was on the duke's estate, Chatsworth, that Victoria regia first spread its white petals in English water. Syon and Kew Gardens followed, and a commissioned steamer rushed Kew's first flower down the Thames so Victoria herself could see it.

Britons went mad for the thing. Victoria regia took up residence in two of the era's most distinctive spaces: an aquarium set inside a greenhouse. Moreover, the buds veritably reeked of dense jungles, of fertile and exotic realms. Tens of thousands took up the offer of public visiting hours at the Victoria houses to gawk at the flower.

Schomburgk, meanwhile, had flourished like his flower: he won the RGS gold medal, received a Crown commission to survey colonial boundaries in South America, and became a celebrated explorer. He never found El Dorado proper, but he did find the site he believed gave rise to the legend. In 1844, he was knighted by Victoria herself.

The gargantuan lily sat as the centrepiece of the Great Exhibition. In fact, according to Paxton, it had actually made the whole affair possible.

Paxton's was a story everyone knew: the son of a common gardener dismissing the most celebrated architects of the age with a wave of his pen and a dash of derring-do. His handyman skills on the greenhouses of Chatsworth had readied him for the execution of one of the great works of structural art in the 19th century - the Crystal Palace.

Modestly, he thanked Schomburgk's flower: "Nature was the engineer," he announced, revealing that the structural ribbing on the underside of a Victoria regia leaf had been adopted in the iron skeleton of the Crystal Palace roof: "Nature has provided the leaf with longitudinal and transverse girders and supports that I, borrowing from it, have adopted in this building." Victoria regia , it turns out, bore seeds of genius.

Root to blossom, the flower reached wider than anyone could have guessed - from the alluvial plains of Guyana to Hyde Park and beyond. In fact, its finest tendrils creep right up to our towering glass skyscrapers, descendants of the Crystal Palace and the flower that gave it shape.

D. Graham Burnett is assistant professor of history and the history of science at Princeton University and author of Masters of All They Surveyed (University of Chicago Press, 2000).

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