The extraordinary sex life of Victoria amazonica
Transsexual lilies and all-night beetle parties8th Mar 2021
The giant water lily, Victoria amazonica, is bizarre. It’s the biggest water lily in the world, and its leaves are so big and buoyant that a small adult can sit on one and read a book. However, what’s really unusual about them is their sex life. But don’t worry, we’ll keep it PG.
Weird, wonderful water lilies
We have beautiful indigenous water lilies in South Africa: Nymphaea nouchali – more commonly called the blue water lily or (inaccurately) blue lotus – and Nymphaea lotus – the white water lily or (yes, incorrectly) white lotus. Despite the names, these are water lilies, not lotuses.
Big and beautiful
You’ve probably marvelled at how jacanas (also called lily trotters) gaily pace from one leaf to another, but our lilies are minuscule compared to the spectacularly huge giant Amazonian water lily, which can support a reasonably small adult (sitting carefully, not trotting). At least you don’t have to get on a plane to see them.
The flowers of the aptly named giant water lily can grow up to 40 centimetres, and the leaves up to three metres in diameter. The leaves are truly a masterpiece of botanical engineering. The edges of the leaves are curved up to form a boat-like structure, and the upper surface is coated in a waxy, water-repellent substance that acts as a permanent self-bailer, so they don’t get swamped, and they are supported by an intricate web of ribs and struts that prevent the leaf from folding up under pressure. These structures – so essential to the plant’s survival – are protected by sharp spines that dissuade hungry fish from munching on them.
When the plant was first ‘discovered’ by European explorers, British gardeners entered into a competitive frenzy to see who could persuade one to grow in chilly, grey England. One of the first people to succeed was Joseph Paxton, who spent hours studying the plant’s structure, which he used as the basis for his groundbreaking architectural masterpiece, the immense and spectacular Crystal Palace that he built in Hyde Park.
Come into my parlour …
The poem The Spider and the Fly is a cautionary tale warning insects, young children, and wide-eyed bambies, bunnies and puppies not to trust seemingly nice people that offer tempting treats to get you to step into their van, house or lair. But Victoria amazonica is not your average schoolyard predator. Not at all. While our lovely giant lilies do use enticing bait to lure unsuspecting scarab beetles into their lairs for explicitly sexual purposes, their intentions are decidedly honourable. They pay the scarabs handsomely for their services, and do not harm them at all. It’s really all very cunning, and this is how they do it.
The plants flower only for a few days, and – like many sexually adventurous individuals – blossom at night. Interestingly, they are also transsexual. As the sun sinks, all the flowers open at about the same time. It starts life as a female, and opens up as a delicate white flower wafting the deliciously tempting aroma of the sticky syrup with which she lures in the decidedly willing and consensual scarab beetles. She also raises her ‘body temperature’ by as much as 11°C, creating an inviting, cosy space – much like a warm pub on a cold night. Once in, the beetles get the syrup on their feet so they can’t get out, but that doesn’t really bother them, as they tuck into the mouthwatering smorgasbord with which the kindly lily has furnished them. And then, just as they may start thinking that they should leave before the sun rises, they find the lily has closed, and trapped them within its delicious, scented pavilion of delights. So they continue partying, eating and drinking and – possibly, but probably not – dancing. Now, assuming that this is not the beetles’ first rodeo, they will have been covered in pollen when they entered, and they will, at the start of this night and day of sensual delight, have deposited pollen all over the plant’s stigma (female sex organ). Once having achieved this, the lily then holds them captive while it undergoes a spectacular sex change.
The pollinated female part of the plant closes up, retreats and starts the process of fertilisation and seed production. The petals gradually change from white to pink, and the until-now unformed anthers (male sex organs) mature. At sunset the next day, the flower opens as a pink, unscented male flower. The beetles see their chance to escape, and work their way out through a gauntlet of stamens, becoming covered in pollen.
As they leave, thanking their hostess (now host – sexist language can be so tricky with transsexuals) for a lovely party, they fly over more newly opened female plants, exuding a heady scent of delicious nectar and offering a warm, cosy place to spend the night. The beetle gives in to temptation, and flies into another flower, where it drops off the recently acquired pollen, and parties all night. It’s a win-win stratey, and a great time is had by all. You can just imagine a small group of teenage scarab beetles getting together to plan a few days of gynoecium crawling.
Seeing is believing
The giant water lilies grow wild in South America (of course) and there is also a celebrated population in Shuangxi Park in Taipei, where you could sit on a lily pad like Kermit the Frog for the ultimate selfie. (You’d need a long selfie stick to get the whole lily pad in the picture, or you could go retro and get an actual other person to take the photo – it’s been done!) But you don’t have to go to South America or Taiwan to see these spectacular plants. There are loads in the Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam Botanical Garden near Pamplemousses in Mauritius – and Mauritius is only a four-hour flight from Joburg.
While you’re there, you could enjoy all the other delights Mauritius has to offer – but sitting on a water lily leaf is not one of them. (It’s actually not a good idea, much like riding ostriches – they may survive in the short term, but suffer structural damage in the long term.)