The water lily that changed architecture | gardening tips

OOne of the most wonderful things about botanist’s work is the sheer number of plants that exist. There are an estimated 400,000 species on Earth – I say estimated, because over 1,000 are recorded as new to science each year, so no plant scientist can ever know them all.

And it’s this incredible diversity that sometimes sparks something that captures our imagination – so much so that our passion for growing them sets off ripples that revolutionize not just horticulture, but the whole way we live our lives, even the architecture. A classic example of this can be found in the most unlikely places: the upper tributaries of the Amazon rainforest.

The huge leaves of giant water lilies, Victoria sp, are not only fascinating for their incredible size, being large enough to support the weight of a child, but for how they have changed the face of modern architecture. When the seeds of this amazing plant made their way to Victorian England from South America, they sparked a race among the British aristocracy to see who could be the first to make it bloom.

The problem was that its huge leaves kept growing and growing, which meant that the elaborate heated pools and purpose-built greenhouses to house them had to get bigger and bigger. This posed a huge problem for architects and engineers at the time, because until then there wasn’t really the technology to create large expanses without sufficiently wide pillars.

“By an incredible twist of fate, the solution to this design conundrum was in the very leaves they were trying to grow”: Crystal Palace. Photography: JHU Sheridan Libraries/Gado/Getty Images

By an amazing twist of fate, the solution to this riddle lay in the very leaves they were trying to grow. The plants themselves are only able to create such vast water lilies through an elaborate network of ribbed ribs, creating reinforced mini-archs to support their weight, distributing the load over a series of “cells”. This was noticed by the ingenious horticulturist Joseph Paxton, who despite having no formal training in architecture or engineering, realized that this same technique could be used to form huge glass structures.

He used it to build the enormous Crystal Palace to stage the Great Exhibition in London in the mid-1800s. It was a total revolution in architecture, being the structure with the largest glass surface ever seen in the ‘era. It is these techniques that have led to the creation of almost every major public building in the world, from shopping malls to airports to office buildings.

It has even been argued that without structures capable of physically organizing such large gatherings, where people from different social strata can mix, the world would be a much more segregated place than it is today. All this, apparently, thanks to a water lily and the obsession it sparked in our minds to see it bloom.

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