Today, Nymphaea caerulea defines the water lily. However, thousands of years ago, ancient Egyptians called it the blue lotus, which grew wild and featured prominently in ceremonial rituals and as medicinal treatments. The blue lotus was popular in its own right as a beautiful flower. The water lily retained this heritage of beauty long after the blue lotus had all but faded away.
Water lilies are members of the very extensive Nymphaeaceae family. Members come in a wide range of colors, forms and sizes, flowering by day or by night depending on the variety. Their pads are green, flecked or multicolored. Some have descriptive names like Ruby and Star of Siam. In Australia, the native N. gigantea exhibits flowers about 12 inches in diameter and pads of up to 2 feet.
In 1837, the English botanist John Lindley named the giant Amazonian water lily "Victoria regia" in honor of Queen Victoria. However, 36 years earlier, the Bohemian botanist Tadea Haenke had seen this species, but failed to record his findings. Other subsequent sightings and recordings included that of German botanist Eduard Friedrich Poeppig, who published the first account of this water lily under the name Euryale amazonica, assuming that it belonged to the same genus as Euryale ferox. Today, its botanical name is Victoria amazonica. In 1849 the first Victoria amazonica plant cultivated from seeds in England bore flowers. Queen Victoria visited Kew Gardens when the first flowering took place there.
Ferox is the only species in the Euryale genus. Euryale ferox has purple flowers that normally open under water, as well as thorn-laden, bright-green lily pads with a quilted pattern. This species is the closest genus relation to Victoria amazonica.
The leaf structure of the Victoria amazonica greatly impressed Joseph Paxton, the chief gardener at the estate of the Duke of Devonshire at Chatsworth. Paxton incorporated the pattern into the architectural design of a conservatory. In 1851, the construction of the Crystal Palace for the Great Industrial Exhibition of London also featured this design. Subsequently, Paxton received a knighthood in recognition of his outstanding horticultural and design work.
Some of the most highly acclaimed paintings of water lilies are from French Impressionist Claude Monet (1840 to 1926). Monet completed a series of about 250 oil paintings of water lilies at his own garden in Giverny during the latter years of his life. Monet's works of art grace museums throughout the world, among them the Musee Marmottan Monet in Paris and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.