This time, I had intended to write about the waterlily (Nymphaea caerulea or N. lotus). But the post was bewitched – a magic wand was waved, the lily disappeared.
Why the waterlily?
Most precious of flowers to the ancient Egyptians, a symbol of rebirth, and one of several images representing Upper Egypt – the cradle of Egyptian civilization – it was once central to the country’s art and culture. One creation myth related that the sun god Re was born of a lotus (lily)* flower floating on Nun, the primeval waters.
Of all the images in ancient Egyptian art, one that I return to again and again is a painted wooden sculpture of the head of Tutankhamen emerging from just such a flower. As lovely as it is simple, it encapsulates the idea of rebirth perfectly. In the Book of the Dead, we read: “I am the pure one who issued from the fen… Oh Lotus belonging to the semblance of Nefertem.” The lotus was the symbol of Nefertem, a god associated with Re and also lord of perfumes.
Lotus flowers feature in wall paintings and reliefs within tombs from every period of ancient history. Usually, they are held to the nose of a human figure, a puzzling image given that the flowers are not noted for their scent. Of course, it may have to do with breathing in new life, fulfilling a similar function to the “ankh” or key of life.
So, in London last week, I made my customary pilgrimage to the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew. And, as usual, I made straight for the glasshouse where the lily pond is to be found. Every time I visit London, this is where I go once, twice or perhaps three times. The lilies range from the tiniest of species, with bright yellow flowers, endemic to Rwanda, to glorious white, purple or yellow flowering specimens with enormous leaves the size of tea trays. Each leaf has a nick in the edge for water to drain out, and a system of veins that marries intricacy with incredible strength: indeed, this was the basis of Joseph Paxton’s design for the groundbreaking glasshouse constructed for the Great Exhibition in 1851. Study an upturned leaf, which Kew gardeners will obligingly arrange for you, and you see exactly how he arrived at the concept.
But on this visit, what had happened? The display of a certain kind of fruit outside the glasshouse should have been sufficient warning. Once inside the glasshouse, and Lo! A fairy godmother had evidently waved her wand and turned the precious waterlilies into – pumpkins!
I should have known: with each summer visit, I had observed bed after bed filled with pumpkin plants of every sort along the main path down to the orangery. They were part of Kew’s neatly named festival of “IncrEdibles”. But it had never occurred to me that such interlopers could possibly displace my beloved waterlilies.
Pumpkins have a certain charm: you can eat them, for a start (but you can also eat the lily rhizome, or so I have read). And the aptly named “Turk’s Turbans”, displayed outside in the gardens where I would argue they really belong, are undeniably appealing:
Still reeling from an overdose of pumpkin, I have an urgent request to the fairy godmother of Kew: once Halloween is over, would she kindly return and wave her wand over the irreverent pile in the glasshouse. I’d like the pupmkins to be turned back into: lilies, please.
* Egypt has two species of waterlilies. Nymphaea caerulea, or the blue lily, with narrow, white petals at an acute angle, was once prevalent. It is often seen in ancient art and architecture (stylized forms of the bud and flower appear as capitals to pillars). N. lotus, or the white lily, has wider petals at an obtuse angle and was confined to the Delta and Fayyum regions. The Greeks caused the confusion in names, using the word “lotus” for plants that are absolutely distinct from the true lotus plant, Nelumbo nucifera, introduced by the Romans from Asia. Kew is an excellent place to compare and contrast the plants in close proximity.