Have you ever dreamed of hopping from lily pad to lily pad like the frog in a fairytale? Well, it turns out, lilies like that exist in real life—and they can support the weight of a person! The giant water lily (Victoria amazonica) entranced the minds of royals back in the day, but now, you don’t have to travel far to see these wondrous plants for yourself.
Native to South America, the giant water lily was not easy to cultivate outside of its tropical home. Fascinated by these otherworldly plants, the British tried to grow them in England, but the lily refused to flower after a taxing overseas journey. A botanist named Joseph Paxton finally succeeded at Kew Gardens in 1849 and named the plant in honor of Queen Victoria. Europe had caught lily fever. Whole greenhouses were erected for the sole purpose of displaying these unique plants and visitors flocked to see (and stand on) the huge leaves. After that first success, the royal gardens has grown the lilies ever since—nearly 170 years now! The leaves served as a muse beyond the field of botany, too. The branching structure of the leaves’ underside spines later inspired Paxton’s design of the Crystal Palace for the Great Exhibition of 1851.
These enormous plants can grow to an astonishing 8 feet across, so we don’t recommend them for the backyard gardener! The leaf starts as a folded cluster of spines, then quickly unfurls into large lily pads at a rate of 2 feet per day. Air caught in the spaces between this sprawling network of spiny stems is what keeps the leaves afloat. A single plant produces 40-50 pads in one growing season, making a pool appear to be filled with many lilies rather than just one. And they can indeed support up to 100 pounds when fully grown, leading to lots of Instagrammable photo ops. Check out these two unsuspecting babies floating gently along on a blanket—with supervision, of course. Gardeners who work with these plants know that the spines on the bottom pack a mean point.
Not to be outdone by the leaves, the flowers of the giant water lily quietly bloom at night and last just a few days. They are pollinated by beetles—as if by magic, the flower blooms first white, then pink after pollination. When it first opens, beetles are attracted to the sweet scent of the flowers. The plant then closes, trapping the beetles inside for the day. When it reopens, it blooms pink and releases the beetles, making this relationship a win-win for both species. Watch a timelapse of the stunning transformation below.
Luckily, you don’t have to travel all the way to South America or the UK to see these eye-catching plants. Here are just a few US gardens that feature the lilies. Call ahead of time to see when they’ll be growing—usually in the summer months. Many also offer extended night hours so you can catch a glimpse of the flowers in bloom!