The Water-lily House, in the middle of the block, measures about 12 yds. by 10 yds. ; the centre is occupied by the tank measuring 9 yds. by 7 yds., and is 4 ft. in depth.
During the months of June and July the exuberance of healthy vegetation in this house is calculated to give the visitor some idea of the rank luxuriance in the steamy vapours of a tropical swamp : but here, the leaf-forms, grown in complete shelter from wind, are more perfect.(*1) Nor is the resemblance merely a superficial one, for if the gardeners who tend the water-plants were to omit to take a periodical dose of quinine, fever in a malignant form would be the penalty.
On entering, we are confronted by a plot of papyrus growing in the well-ordered swamp, which has been arranged along the near border of the tank.
Papyrus antiquorum, now found in Europe only on the banks of the Anapo in Sicily, and in Africa high up the Nile above the cataracts, supplied the ancient Egyptians with material for their paper, which may easily be prepared by selecting some of the largest of the sterns, and, after removing the epidermis, cutting the pith longitudinally in thin slices, and uniting the edges by gum-water, or any other adhesive liquid. Among the Egyptians, water from the Nile was said to have been employed for the purpose. In order to counteract the contraction which takes place in drying, similar slices are to be glued on across the grain of the former, after which the sheet produced, must be subjected to strong pressure.
Left of the Papyrus is a strong plant of Mariophyllum proserpinacioides.
Further to the right is a fine clump of Nelumbium speciosum, the Sacred Bean of Egypt, anciently cultivated in that country, but no longer found there, though common enough in various parts of the East Indies. Its leaves, which are orbicular, sometimes measure 2 ft. in diameter ; and its handsome and fragrant flowers may exceed the size of 10 in. The ancient Egyptians used the seeds, which are enclosed in a pepper-box-like fruit, as an article of food.
The Lotus is extensively cultivated by the Chinese, by whom the roots are highly valued as a vegetable.
Nelumbium luteum from Carolina, with pale yellow flowers, flowered freely in the first years of the house, circ. 1852.
At the corners of the tank, rising behind clumps of Cyperus, are small specimens of Plantains and Bananas. Musa paradisiaca is remarkable for its large oblong entire leaves, from the centre of which issues a spike of flowers disposed round a common axis, each group protected and covered over at first by a coloured bract, which afterwards drops off and thus allows the fruit to expand and ripen. This species, however, is too much checked in its growth by the dimensions of our house to yield fruit; but another, the M. cavendishii or dwarf Banana, which grows only to the height of 6 ft. or 8 ft., produces in most years large bunches of fruit, (*2) which are (or should be) eaten by the Vice-Chancellor, the President of Magdalen, and the Professor of Botany. M. cavendishii is a Chinese plant which has had an interesting cultural history, for it has now been widely distributed in the Pacific Islands. A specimen grown at Chatsworth was exported in a Wardian case to Samoa, whence in 1848 Mr. G. Pritchard distributed specimens to the Friendly and Fiji Islands in the Pacific (which were then stricken with famine), and with most successful result, since this dwarf Banana never fails to ripen its fruit. M. Wilsoni is also grown.
Along the margin of the water the Water Hyacinth, Eichhornia speciosa (Pontederia crassipes) from Guiana grows like a weed. It bore its pretty blue spikes of blossoms in 1898, and either it or another species has done so on many occasions since. It is distinguished by the swelling leaf-stalk, which, filled with air, gives the plant great buoyancy.
The vivid tints of the Water-lilies in the tank will next attract attention -- indeed, from the month of June onwards they are the feature of the house. In Dr. Daubeny's time the Oxford Garden was noted for the excellence of its Waterlilies, and for the early successes of Mr. Baxter. The good reputation is being ably maintained by Mr. Baker, who is an acknowledged expert in their cultivation, and the author of the article thereon, in the "Book of Gardening." Several of the illustrations in that volume have been prepared from plants grown in our Garden.
The Egyptian Lotus, Nymphaea lotus, is a plant of much historical interest, the blossoms and buds of which figured much on the painted monuments of that country, and which probably suggested the form of the capitals on the columns of certain orders of Egyptian architecture.
In 1853 the collection of Water-lilies included Nymphaea stellata (coerulea) from Egypt, a very beautiful plant with large blue petals; N. cyanea and rubra (red), from the East Indies ; dentata (white), from Sierra Leone : devonienensis, (*3) a free-flowering hybrid, raised at Chatsworth from rubra and dentata ; odorata minor, a small fragrant species from N. America ; micrantha from the river Gambia; and pygmaea, the smallest of the species known to us, a hardy species from China. The hybrid N. daubenyana° x (= N. stellata x N. micrantha (*3)) originated in the Garden about 1851, and for a long time held a place as the best of its class both for beauty and length of time of flowering. In colour it is pale blue, it has the scent of N. stellata, and produces bulbils like micrantha. Cabomba viridifolia and Euryale ferox have also been grown.
Among the newer forms are :
Some of these bloom by day, some by night, when the Garden is closed to the public. Several day-bloomers close petals and sink below the surface during the night. Dark spots * indicate night-bloomers ; light spots ° indicate day-bloomers.
Waterweeds of unusual size and form luxuriate in their appropriate quarters near the margin of the tank. The largest, Pistia stratiotes, grown here in former years, is common in the ponds of the West Indies, where its leaves float loosely on the surface of the water like green lettuces unattached to the soil. It is a constituent of the "sadd" which is so great an impediment to navigation on the Upper Nile.
*3 Baxter's hybrid has apparently escaped the notice of Caspary and Conrad (1905), but it is mentioned by Maxwell Masters, Gardeners' Chronicle, May 24,1856. A few bulbils flowered in 1911.