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Giants, sci-fi villains and Victoria lilies

Like a villain out of a sci-fi movie, Victoria lilies start out their lives as a wrinkled mass of thorns that takes months to iron out into the giant, majestic leaves, celebrated for supporting extraordinary weights.

I’m not usually one for plants but these lilies are certainly an eye-catcher with their 2m wide leaves, cathedral-like vaulted walls and razor-sharp thorns. The intricate walls were apparently the inspiration for the Crystal Palace in Hyde Park designed by Joseph Paxton. The two species, Victoria amazonica and Victoria cruziana are found in lakes and slow-moving rivers of the Amazon and Paraná Basin, and the Pantanal.

But the enormous size of the leaf and spectacular colours that change with sunrise and sunset sun are not the end of this plant’s astonishing life history. The snowy, dew-flecked white flowers, bloom and glitter at night and fade away during the day. The flowers of giant water lilies, like many large plants, are thermogenic- a process by which they are able to raise their temperature in some cases to attract endothermic pollinators in search of heat. Temperatures in the floral chambers have been recorded at up to 34.7°C, far higher than the surrounding ambient temperature.

The two species of beetles, the main pollinators, are also draw in by the pineapple-like smells that the flower emanates at night. They can find themselves trapped inside the female flowers for a day or more. Once the female flowers have transferred their pollen onto the pollinators, the flowers transform into male flowers, changing into purplish-red flowers which no longer emit any smells. The beetles that have been studied, are found to travel from second-day flowers (males) to first-day flowers (receptive females). These beetles spend a good part of their adult lives enclosed in the flowers, saving energy by not needing to warm up.

Wattle jacanas browse among the leaves, looking for insects and vertebrates while the sound of frogs fill the warm, sticky nights. It is difficult to spot these frogs, but a clue to their presence can be found in the rosy pink eggs spotted on the walls of the lily leaves.

The giant water lily has not been evaluated by the IUCN Red List but faces the usual suspect list of threats that affect the wilderness of this part of the world- climate change and deforestation. In Porto Jofre, where these leaves and flowers were photographed, the pool the lilies live in is slowly being colonised by a dominant type of Carex. Sp grass leaving no room for open water and other species. With time and lack of care, these beautiful lily pads will disappear.

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