Today’s Workshop Wednesday features Victoria lilies and how to grow these giants of the water garden.
With a leaf up to 8 feet in diameter and flowers as big as platters, the Victoria is no shrinking violet.
“It is something that touches every sense and everyone has a reason to find it fascinating,” says Nancy Styler, founder and co-director of the Victoria Conservancy, a nonprofit branch of the International Waterlily and Water Gardening Society.
Working together with her husband, Trey, the Conservancy provides Victoria waterlilies for the Denver Botanic Gardens, The Hudson Gardens, Denver University and other water gardens around the world.
Named for Queen Victoria, these giant water lilies are known for their large, round floating leaves and their beautiful oversize flowers.
Styler says children are fascinated by the plant’s monster size and gigantic thorns. Horticulturists appreciate the flower’s ability to change color and sex overnight and photographers attempt to capture its image after dark.
Even engineers find the plant intriguing because the leaf’s rib structure allows it to support 50 pounds of weight.
In fact it was a photo of a Victorian lady standing on a leaf which led Styler to start growing Victorias at her Greenwood Village home in 1992.
“When our son Will was 7, he saw that picture and wanted to grow the plants and charge people to take their pictures standing on the leaves,” Styler explains. “He thought it would be a way to pay for his college education.”
Joe Tomocik, curator of the water gardens at the Denver Botanic Gardens, arranged for Will to get some small plants.
That first year the family had to dig a pond in their backyard to accommodate the transplants. The flowers bloomed and Styler collected the seeds. The next year she began growing her own plants. That required digging bigger ponds.
“That one plant took us on an incredible journey,” she says.
The journey has included taking trips to the Amazon, learning how to hybridize plants, collecting data, distributing seeds and educating at least 1000 third graders about the rain forest. Today Styler is considered a world-class Victoria waterlily expert.
The plants she grows for the Denver Botanic Gardens are started from pea-sized seeds she collects from plants in November.
In January she places the seeds in small, condiment-sized cups. As the roots develop, she moves them to larger and larger containers until they’re planted in pots about 4 feet in diameter and 18 inches deep.
Each pot is fitted with a rubber liner and filled with heavy clay soil that anchors the plant’s roots. A slow release fertilizer is added and the pot is sunk into two large insulated and heated ponds. The leaves extend to the water’s surface to get sunlight and oxygen.
“The leaf starts life like a thorny taco,” Styler says. “The sun hits it and it starts rolling out and flattening out. The leaves can grow up to 1 foot a day.”
The plants are ready to be moved to their summer home when the leaves are about 4 feet in diameter. Interns from the Denver Botanic Gardens carefully transport them to the gardens and then wade into the pond to float the pots into position.
Attendance increases whenever botanic gardens feature Victorias, Styler says. But visitors know better than to try to stand on a leaf for a photo opportunity. Styler uses a special platform to give the illusion of standing on a floating leaf.
This feature was first published in The Denver Post gardening section in 2008.