A deftly told tale of a magnificent water lily that, during the Victorian age, captured the attention of British horticulturalists, wowed the British public and became the inspiration for the Crystal Palace, then the largest building in the world.
Dickens scholar Holway has assembled a terrific cast of characters, including the German Robert Schomburgk, hired by the Royal Geographic Society to survey the new colony of British Guiana and discoverer of the flower on the River Berbice in 1837; John Lindley, the botanical authority who classified the find as Victoria regia; and Sir Joseph Banks, the force behind the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew. Getting a viable plant to England took years, and getting it to thrive and bloom there led to competition between Joseph Paxton, the multitalented head gardener at Chatsworth, and Sir William Jackson Hooker, director of the Royal Botanic Gardens. The star of the saga is Paxton, an ambitious individual with little education who figured out what the plant needed to survive, flourish and bloom. He designed and had built the large plate-glass–and-wrought-iron building that protected it, inspired, as he said, by the structure of the leaves of the plant itself. Paxton, who was later knighted, went on to use those same features to design the enormous Crystal Palace erected in Hyde Park to house the Great Exhibition in 1851. Not essential to the story but a happy bonus is Holway’s description of the exhibition, which featured not just nature and art, but a cluttered mass of industrial objects from around the world.
A fresh and often witty account in which the author quotes freely from correspondence and periodicals to create a lively portrait of Victorian England and of the widespread passion for flowers and gardening at that time.