This amazing plant is found only in the still waters and oxbow lakes and lagoons of the Amazon lowlands, and on our Amazon cruises we search out the quiet backwaters where this plant can be found.
In 1832 Eduard Poeppiga, German explorer, found it on the Amazon and gave the first published account of it under the name Euryale amazonica, his supposition being that it belonged to the same genus as an Asian variety (similar but 1/3 the size of the Amazonian species). In 1837, just a few years later, John Lindley published for the first time a description of the genus and named the genus after the new Queen, Victoria, and the species Victoria regia. Since then, it has been accepted that V. amazonica takes precedence over V. regia or regina, due to prior publication. The current name, Victoria amazonica, did not come into widespread use until the twentieth century although in some literature, V. regia can still be found. Victoria is a genus with only two species in the family Nymphaeaceae.
Victoria amazonica has a leaf that is up to 3 metres (9.8 feet) in diameter, on a stalk 7–8 metres (22.9-26.2 feet) in length. The leaves exhibit some extraordinary structural characteristics. A notch in the middle of the leaf rim allows rainwater to drain from the surface of each pad and a web-like structure of hollow ribs supports the underside of the leaves; these ribs are filled with air and provide for exceptional buoyancy. Spectacular sharp spines cover the underside of the leaves, the stems, and the flower buds, protecting the leaves from animals and fish. Only the roots, flowers and the upper sides of the leaves are spine-free. In fact the designs and the remarkable "natural engineering" of Victoria's pads were later used as the basis for Joseph Paxton’s successful design of the Crystal Palace in Hyde Park, London, the building that would house the "Great Exhibition of the Works of All Nations" in 1851.
The second recognized species, Victoria cruziana, (sometimes mistakenly called V. trickerii), is found in the cooler waterways of Argentina and Paraguay. V. cruziana has slightly smaller leaves with a purple underside covered with peach-like fuzz rather than the smooth red of V. amazonica. The pads of the V. cruziana also have a higher lip, are generally green, and are obviously more cold tolerant, making it popular for culture in the U.S. Young plants can grow at an amazing rate, exhibiting increases in individual pad diameter of over eight inches in one day.
The Victoria's nocturnal flowers are impressive, as is their bizarre pollination biology. The flowers open a pure white on their first night and emit a strong bananas and ripe pineapple-like scent. This attracts the scarab beetle pollinator (Cylocephata castaneal) to the flower, which is functionally female that evening and receptive to pollen brought by the beetle. As daybreak approaches, the flower begins to close, trapping the beetle inside. During the day the flower becomes functionally male, indicated by the maturation of the anthers and the release of pollen. The beetle becomes coated with the pollen, but cannot fertilize the flower because it is now functionally male. The flower opens the second evening, having changed color from white to pink. The beetle is released and seeks out another white, fragrant, receptive flower, where it will then deposit its pollen. The seeds are quite nutritious and are used as food by the natives of the Amazon.
Victoria amazonica has inspired people in different ways throughout the ages. A legend of the Tupis-Guaranis, indigenous people from Northern Brazil, tells a story from a long time ago, that every night, when the moon hid behind the hills far off on the horizon, it was going to live together with its favorite young ladies. They said that if the moon really likes a girl, it would transform her into a star of the sky. After hearing the story, Naia, a beautiful young princess, so wanted to be a star that at night when everybody was sleeping and the moon was traveling across the sky, she ran up into the hills after the moon, hoping it could see her up there. Unsuccessful the first time, she continued to go up into the hills every night, for a very long time. But the moon did not seem to notice her, even though the crying of the princess could be heard, as well as her sadness and sighs.
One night the princess saw in the clear waters of a lake, the image of the moon. The innocent girl wondered if the moon had finally come down to take her away, so she dove in the deep waters to join the moon and its lovely young ladies. She was never seen again. The moon, in return for the beautiful princess's sacrifice, transformed her into a different star, different from all the others in the night sky. The moon transformed the princess into a "Star of the Waters", whose flower is the "Vitória Régia". At that moment a new plant was born, whose scented white flowers blossom and unfurl only at night. In the early morning when the sun appears, the flowers change their color to soft pink.