Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Jungle Flower

A couple of nights ago clicking through television channels the numbers eventually rolled around to Animal Planet, and I was pleased to hit upon a favorite type of documentary. Hadn’t seen anything on that channel for ages, maybe the last being an episode with the late Steve Irwin a couple of years back. This time the camera crew was in the Amazon rainforest observing a small part of its vast and teeming life—animals, insects, birds, fish, trees, plants and flowers—and the dependency of one upon the other. We all know that animals eat other animals, birds pollinate flowers and trees make a home for monkeys, but there is an intricacy about some relationships in the rainforest oftentimes beyond our imagination.

The giant waterlily Victoria amazonica, largest of all known aquatic plants, grows in the Amazonia region of central Brazil, its immense leaf-pads floating on the surface of hidden ponds and lagoons deep in forest tributaries of the Amazon River. The huge ‘leaves’ with their upturned rims often exceed seven feet in diameter and are anchored by long stalks rising from an underground stem buried in the mud of the river bottom. These stems reach as much as eighteen feet from the river bottom, and grow with the rising waters that cover lowland floodplains during the rainy season from December to March. In that rich fertile mud of the Amazon the monstrous lily pads grow from a pea-sized seed to a huge blooming plant in a matter of months.

Victoria amazonica was first described by British explorers in 1837, who named it after Queen Victoria. But little was known about the life-cycle and natural history of the plant until the twentieth century. The plants sprout from seeds and burgeoning stems grow in a race to stay ahead of the water that can rise six inches in a day. In time each plant produces five to ten lily pads over a month. Victoria amazonica are night blooming, and in a rush of fertility they scent the late afternoon and evening air with a pineapple-like fragrance, foretelling the bloom of the first night flower, huge and white. Magnificent white female flowers appear one day before morphing into pink male flowers the next. The white flowers are pollinated by a species of beetle that crawls inside the open petals rubbing its pollen coated legs against the waiting anthers and filaments. The flower assures pollination by closing its petals and locking the beetle inside. On the second night the flower opens once more, but is now a deep pink and no longer female, but male. And the beetle-emissary, coated in fresh pollen trundles off to his next mix and match.

Despite their beautiful blossoms and the smooth upper surface of the pads, these plants are heavily armed with thorns for protection. The upper surface has a quilted appearance and a waxy layer that repels water, but the purplish red underside is a network of ribs covered in sharp spines, possibly a defense against herbivorous fish and manatees. Air trapped in the spaces between the ribs enables the leaves to float.

For a long time it was a mystery how these waterlilies survived the dry season. Seeds deposited on the parched floodplain during the hottest weather will dry out and die, while seeds falling into the river are eaten by fish. So how do the seeds survive? During low water among the grassland marshes filled with spongy muck, the main lily seed beds are spring fed from underground pools. These isolated ponds hidden and protected from the main river and impossible to cross have no fish in them to eat the seeds. And so, another combination of circumstances—a beautiful twist of nature—holds the secret to the fragile survival of the giant Amazon waterlily. Resting secure in the wetness of a remote underground spring, the seeds of the amazonica will bring life anew to the Amazon rainforest once again.


  1. Really really interesting post today. How I would love to go see these beautiful specimen.

  2. No doubt an Amazon river sprite could stand on one of those pads. Amazing what info can be gleaned from TV. I have never subscribed to the theory that TV is a vast wasteland (although much of it can be). I have only to think of the early days when endless loops of WWII combat footage was one of the only staples of Saturday afternoon viewing.

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Oak Hill, Florida, United States
A longtime expat relearning the footwork of life in America