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The Flower of Empire: The Amazon's Largest Water Lily, the Quest to Make it Bloom, and the World it Helped Create

Popular Science
A fascinating story that reads like a novel
Offers a rich account of the culture and context of Victorian England
No other book has been written on the remarkable story of the Victoria regia water lily
The book is based on extensive original research, relying on Victorian letters, diaries, and periodicals

By: Tatiana Holway (Author)

324 pages, 16 plates with colour & b/w photos and colour & b/w illustrations

Oxford University Press USA

Hardback | May 2013 | #201926 | ISBN-13: 9780195373899
Availability: In stock
NHBS Price: £18.99 $23/€21 approx

About this book

In 1837, a German naturalist named Robert Schomburgk was charting the South American terrirtory of Guiana on behalf of the Royal Geographical Society. Guiana, only recently joined to the British Empire, was almost uncharted, and knowledge of it stemmed primarily from Sir Walter Raleigh's account of his search for the legendary city El Dorado. Moving upriver, Schomburgk found not gold, but to his astonishment, a "vegetal wonder" – a water lily so colossal that it physically impeded the expedition's progress. The flowers were dazzlingly white; its leaves were five or six feet across. He took careful notes and packed up one of the plants as best he could, then sent them back to England, where news of the discovery spread and fed a horticultural mania. A race was on to bring a live specimen to England, and to bring it to flower. In honor of its being discovered during the year of the new queen's accession to the throne, the lily was named the Victoria regia.

In The Flower of Empire, Tatiana Holway tells the story of this magnificent flower, from its discovery to the manner in which its influence touched upon nearly every aspect of Victorian life, art, and culture. Holway recounts how the lily's appearance was reproduced everywhere, giving rise to new experiments in hothouse architecture and eventually serving as a basis for the design of the Crystal Palace, the most impressive demonstration and symbol of the empire's unrivaled industrial might and natural bounty. The Flower of Empire is a revealing and enduring work of cultural history.

Watch an introduction by the author below


"Holway fills her book with a feast of Victoriana and the enthusiasm of a specialist"
– Peter Lewis, Daily Mail

"[A] remarkable book"
The Lady

"[A] splendid story what's most fascinating about this tale is the way Holway twists and turns it through other botanical developments"
New York Times

"Her rip-roaring, page-turning approach makes this book a hugely enjoyable read for anyone with an interest in 19th century history"
– Ambra Edwards, The Garden

"Tatiana Holway tells the story in all its complexities with verve and humour a handsome book at a very reasonable price."
– Margaret Willes, The Victorian

"Tatiana Holway's wonderful book about the Victoria regia is fascinating, impeccably written, and elegantly designed. Until I read it I had been most fascinated by the Chinese handkerchief tree, Davidia involucrate, but Holway's book has led me reconsider."
– Simon Winchester

"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."
Kirkus Review


Prologue: Victoria's Floras

1. Terra Incognita
2. Perils and Wonders
3. A Floral Sensation
4. An International Tempest
5. Return to the Wild
6. Cultivating Kew Gardens
7. His Grace and His Gardener
8. The Flowering of Chatsworth
9. Golden Square
10. Evergreens
11. Salvaging Kew Gardens
12. Trading Favors
13. Trials and Errors
14. The Great Stove
15. Reviving Kew Gardens
16. Return to El Dorado
17. Paxton, Inc.
18. First Bloom
19. Nature's Engineer
20. Empire under Glass

Epilogue: Victoria Regia Redux

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Tatiana Holway is a Victorian scholar and writer. She received her Ph.D. from Columbia University and has taught literature at a number of different colleges. She lives in Massachusetts.

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