This section is from the book "The Gardener's Monthly And Horticulturist V21", by Thomas Meehan. See also: Four-Season Harvest: Organic Vegetables from Your Home Garden All Year Long.
Somewhat late in the spring of 1877 I obtained a young plant of the Victoria Regia. Having never seen this wonderful plant I determined to try the experiment of growing it in the open air. I built in a warm sunny position, on the south side of a vinery, a tank of bricks and hydraulic cement twenty by thirty feet, and fifteen inches deep. In the centre of this was a pit four feet deep and five feet square. At the top of this pit a curb was built high enough to separate the water within from the water in the main tank. In this central pit was placed a wooden frame four feet square and three feet deep, filled with soil consisting of rich loam and the best manure in equal parts with a little sand. Across the corners of the main tank partitions about ten inches high were made, and the enclosed space filled with soil. In two of these corners I planted Nelumbium luteum, the American lotus, in another Nymphaea coerulea, in the other N. alba. A few feet from the tank is the furnace pit of the greenhouse. In this I placed a common upright stove between three and four feet high. Inside of this was placed nine feet of inch iron pipe in a coil. From each end of this coil, a pipe of the same diameter was carried to the pit in the centre of the lily-tank and left open at the ends.
By this means I was able to heat the water in this enclosed space to a temperature of 90° or more. At the same time a stream of fresh water from a hose, sufficient to keep it pure, was let in. On the 8th of July, 1877, the young Victoria plant had leaves only five inches in diameter. It was then planted and a fire kept up constantly. It grew finely, and in a few weeks we were obliged to remove the upper bricks of the curb and allow the leaves to float upon the surface of the main tank. After this was done of course the heating apparatus had to act upon the water in the whole tank. It was not sufficiently powerful to raise the temperature very much. But the plant produced several leaves over three feet in diameter, and by the middle of September had one which measured four feet. This experiment was sufficiently successful to convince me that by starting early in the season with a larger plant, and having a little more artificial heat, the Victoria may be made to produce flowers and full-sized leaves in the open air in this latitude.
In the Fall the plant was taken under glass, but died. The Nymphaeas bloomed finely, as also did Limnocharis Humboldtii with its yellow poppy-like flowers. Papyrus antiquorum also flourished in the water, and the Nelumbium made growth sufficiently strong to bloom the next season.
Knowing that there were several magnificent water lilies cultivated under glass in Europe, last spring I resolved to try some of them in my open-air lily-tank. I procured tubers of Nym-phsea dentata and N. Devoniana, which were potted, placed in a greenhouse in water kept at 85°, where they soon started into growth. In the latter part of June two plants of dentata and one of Devoniana were placed in the bed where the Victoria grew the season before. Artificial heat was kept up for a short time, until they were well established, and then discontinued. They began to bloom the last of July, and produced a constant succession until the middle of October. Unlike our common Odo-rata, these gorgeous lilies open at night, beginning about eight o'clock and remaining expanded until eight or ten the next morning, each flower opening three nights in succession. They stand on strong foot-stalks ten or twelve inches above the surface of the water.
N. dentata has white flowers, the petals expanding horizontally making a flat flower with the stamens gathered nearly into a cone in the center. It has an agreeable odor, but not as sweet as our native lily. I had several of this which measured twelve inches in diameter. It is a native of Sierra Leone, and India. N. Devoniana is a hybrid from dentata and rubra another Indian species. The flowers are cup-shaped, and from eight to ten inches in diameter across the cup. No one who saw this will accuse me of axe-grinding when I say that it is one of the most lovely flowers in cultivation. At a meeting of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society just previous to the last exhibition, one gentleman pronounced it more beautiful than the flower of the Victoria. The color is a very brilliant rosy red with scarlet stamens. I have never seen it grown under glass, but I believe the color must be more brilliant in the full sunshine and open air. When viewed by lamplight the effect is charming. Unfortunately it has no perfume. These three plants grew to cover a space fifteen feet in diameter. Many of the leaves measured eighteen inches in diameter. N. dentata has bright green leaves; those of the other have a brownish tinge.
As a back-ground to the tank there was a border of tall-growing Cannas, Bamboos and Colocasia. In the back corners the tall yellow Lotus bloomed and bore its curious fruit. In the front corners N. coerulea with its fragrant flowers, and N. alba bloomed until frost. This latter is a native of England, has broad waxy petals, is often six inches in diameter and is quite distinct from X. odorata. It is quite hardy in this country. I also flowered a variety of odorata; flowers precisely like Lady Hume's Blush Camellia in color. I call it var. delicata. I also grew X. flava but the plant was too young to flower. Upon two occasions the whole garden was illuminated at night, and the lily-pond was the centre of attraction to six hundred people. I have said that fire-heat was discontinued after a short time and that the tender species bloomed until into October. I believe that they can be grown in the open air more easily than is generally supposed - in fact without artificial heat - first starting them under glass. The best arrangement is a shallow tank, as the sun will warm the water more readily than in a pond. Such a tank of course requires some care to protect it from injury by frost in winter.
But I have several times grown N. coerulea in a shallow pond with good success; and judging from my experience with the others I see no reason why they cannot be grown in the same way. Care should be taken not to put them out until the water gets warm, and they should have very rich soil to grow in, about one-half well decayed manure.
Probably the best plan would be to put this soil in a box three or four feet square and one foot deep and sink it where the water is twenty or thirty inches deep. They can be wintered in a tub of water in the greenhouse. They produce during the summer young tubers which remain dormant during the winter.