Thursday, 14 July 2011

Penang's giant water lilies

Looks like the giant water lilies are growing at the Penang Botanic Garden. I dropped by the Gardens recently and took a walk around, curious to see whether the lily garden was already opened to the public. Yes, it was.

Now, this place had been closed off for several months - maybe even for more than a year - while the Ministry of Tourism had tried to improve it. At first, two montrous looking arches had been erected here but they had been demolished following fierce resistance to the idea by Penangites and local conservationists who claimed that the arches would completely destroy the beauty of the Garden. 

But it was not until Mother Nature decided to lend a hand to the protests that the arches were taken down. What the Ministry had not considered in their plan was whether the ground was stable enough to withstand the weight of the arches. Or maybe,  there had been some cutting of corners. Whatever, just as the arches had been completed, one of them started tilting.

At first there were denials that the arch was tilting but why deny it? All it would take to confirm it was to hang a plumber's line from the top and see whether the arch was perpendicular. In the end, the Ministry had to accept that the arches had to come down. A victory for the Penang people who hadn't wanted the part of the Penang Botanic Garden expansion plan in the first place.

So instead of the arches, the Ministry went back to the drawing board and based on an expert's recommendation, decided that an open air water lily pond with giant water lilies would be a more appropriate alternative.

During my previous visits to the Garden, I had noticed that the area was cordoned off as the lily garden was being built. As recent as the Penang Floral Show several weeks ago, the lily garden was still closed to visitors although from afar I could see that the giant water lilies were already planted and thriving. Earlier this month, I dropped by again and was pleased to see that at last, I could walk around the place.

Now, although we normally call this plant the giant water lily, is it actually the one known as the Victoria amazonica, named in the 19th century after Queen Victoria of the United Kingdom? (It was a trend in the dominions of the British Empire to name as many objects as possible after their queen. Hope she was amused and not embarrassed by all the fervour outpour of allegiance.) I am really unsure because when I searched the Internet, the pictures of our giant water lily don't totally resemble the V. amazonica.

The original V. amazonica in its natural habitat in Amazon River basin of South America can grow to a gigantic size. The leaf can grow up to a diameter of three metres and despite it being very delicate, it can support a weight of a small child sitting on it.

But unfortunately, the giant water lily at the Penang Botanic Garden does not come close to this dimension. I don't know why because I'm not a botanist. Could it be because our weather here is not similar to the weather in the Amazon River basin? It's just my guess. I would believe that the maximum diameter of a leaf at the Garden was only about 60 centimetres. This was about the size that the leaves would grow to before they would start breaking down and decay.

Nevertheless, the plant was certainly impressive. This was the first time that I had ever seen a real giant water lily after having read about it years ago and seen pictures of it. I only hope that the plants will continue to thrive in our climate. Back in their natural habitat, it would take scarab beetles to polinate the flowers. What then would it require to polinate the flowers here? Would there be seeds to ensure the propagation of the giant water lilies here?

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