Charles Elliott

Beautiful Monster

The Flower of Empire: An Amazonian Water Lily, the Quest to Make It Bloom, and the World It Created

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Oxford University Press 306pp £18.99 order from our bookshop

It’s a pretty good story. Sometime around 1837 a wandering German émigré named Robert Schomburgk, who had managed to convince the Royal Geographical Society to hire him as an explorer, reported finding an enormous and spectacular species of water lily deep in the Guiana jungle. Of course Schomburgk was not the first European to spot the water lily. As early as 1801 one Thaddäus Haenke discovered it growing near the Bolivia–Paraguay border, but all his collections disappeared when he died in Bolivia in 1817. Subsequently, a French botanist came upon it in the same area and ‘well nigh precipitated himself off the raft into the river … in his desire to secure specimens’. When another Frenchman actually succeeded in collecting leaves, flowers and seeds and shipped them to the National Museum of Natural History in Paris, nobody paid them any attention. They almost completely rotted away. Yet Schomburgk’s timing was sensational: Guiana had only recently become a British possession and there was a new queen on the throne. The country was in a ferment of excitement over botany, with new plants arriving daily, and geography, as new territories were claimed. What better moment to celebrate jointly the glories of the nation and of nature? 

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