THE SEARCH FOR THE HARDY VICTORIA WATERLILY OF ARGENTINA
By Walter Pagels and Lindsay "Butch" Weaver
The original discovery of the Giant Water-Platter (as the Europeans first called the Victoria Waterlilies) was in 1801 by Thaddeus Haenke in the South American Amazon River Basin of Brazil. This species was described and named Victoria regia in 1837 by John Lindley in honour of the Queen of Great Britain, but this was later changed to V. amazonica because of the taxonomic "rules of priority" (Eduard Poeppig had published the species epithet "amazonica" five years earlier). It was not until nearly fifty years after its discovery that this tropical plant was successfully raised in the hot houses of Europe and America. Because of the continuous high water temperature required by V. amazonica (29 to 32 oC / 85 to 90 oF), its culture was primarily limited to the very rich.
Meanwhile, in 1840 another species of Victoria was found near Corrientes, Argentina, and named V. cruziana by M. A. D’Orbigny in honor of General Santa Cruz of Bolivia. This plant differed from V. amazonica in that its sepals were prickly only at the base, and the leaves had a higher rim. Some taxonomists at the time thought that this distinction was not sufficient to define V. cruziana as a separate species, and considered it only as a variety of V. amazonica. As time went on however, scientific investigation determined that the chromosome count of V. cruziana was 2n = 44, while for V. amazonica 2n = 40. This was solid evidence denoting them as separate species.
In the 1890s another distinctive characteristic of V. cruziana was determined by the American horticulturist William Tricker. He discovered that the V. cruziana seed would sprout at water temperatures between 18 and 21 oC (65 and 70 oF), while V. amazonica required 29 to 35 oC (85 to 95 oF). Also, V. cruziana would exhibit a much faster growth after sprouting, and the leaf rim developed much earlier than for V. amazonica. Consequently, V. cruziana rapidly replaced V. amazonica for cultivation in temperate regions. It is highly likely that the V. cruziana cultivars now being raised in the U.S. are direct descendants of these original nineteenth century cultivars.
If one looks at a map of South America, we find that the town of Corrientes, Argentina (the southernmost reported collection site for Victoria cruziana), lies at 27.5 degrees south latitude. This is equivalent to the northern latitude of Tampa, Florida, or Corpus Christi, Texas. Corrientes lies along the shore of the Paraná River, which flows south and exits to the Atlantic Ocean at about 34 degrees south latitude, equivalent to the north latitude locations of Atlanta, Georgia, or Los Angeles, California. The Paraná River and its tributaries drain a large area of southern South America, providing a natural migration route south for Victoria cruziana. From this, it is likely that there are sites downstream from Corrientes, which may contain V. cruziana that have more hardy characteristics than our present ‘inbred’ cultivars. Consequently, Lindsay Weaver (Butch), who has been raising Victoria cruziana under harsh conditions in Boulder, Colorado, decided to make a trip to Argentina to see if he could find these Victorias that were adapted to cooler growing conditions. When he discovered that Walter Pagels was of like mind, we decided to make it a team effort.
PREPARING FOR THE TRIP
In preparation for our trip, we contacted IWGS Argentina member Jorge Monteverde. He replied that Victoria cruziana was known as Irupé in Argentina. The Guaraní Indians, the indigenous people of this region, called these plants ‘Irupé’. A new national park had just been established 300 miles south of Corrientes, which had Irupé as a main botanical feature. It was located just south of the town of Diamante and was called Parque National Pre-Delta. The park was so new that it was not yet indicated on any of our most up-to-date maps (copyright 1997) or travel guides.
IWGS member Stan Skinger provided us with some vintage detailed topographical maps (1:530,000 giving a scale of 1cm: 5.3km or 1 inch: 8.4 U.S. miles) but gave us a list of recent ones obtainable in Argentina. Fortunately Jorge volunteered to obtain them for us and mailed them to Butch. Butch had obtained road maps in the U.S. and Jorge sent more detailed road maps from the local auto club. From these maps and earlier discussions with IWGS members Jack Honeycutt and Stan Skinger, Butch determined that the town of Victoria, Entre Rios (named after military victories, not the waterlily), located about 50 miles south of Pre-Delta National Park, would be a good base for our initial search. Unfortunately, the topographical map covering the area around Victoria was the only one in our set that was very old. Stan helped us scan these maps to provide digital versions for the mapping software on our computer.
Another contact in Argentina was Carlos Ruiz, a wild plant seed collector and distributor, who supplied us with information and tourist brochures related to the known collection sites of Irupé. Also, a business associate of Butch, Paul Sampedro, who had traveled extensively in Argentina, recommended that we stay at an estancia (guest ranch) near the river delta in the Province of Entré Rios. With this information, Butch made several phone calls to select estancias around Victoria to establish a home base. His main criteria were that someone in the estancia could speak English, that they returned phone calls, and the price was reasonable. After several fax exchanges, he found that the Estancia "El Cerrito" was the only one which met all of these criteria.
THE START OF OUR TRIP
Because we lived in different cities, we took separate flights to Argentina and met at the international airport in Buenos Aires. We took a taxi to our hotel where we arranged to meet with our local contacts Jorge Monteverde and Carlos Ruiz (who brought along his sister Sylvia to act as our interpreter). We discussed our plans and destinations with them, and they supplied us with information on travel conditions and possible alternative collection sites.
After our meeting, we went out along the main shopping street of Buenos Aires, stopping at all the book stores to pick up the latest road maps and any botanical books on native plants. No appropriate plant book could be found, but detailed road maps were available; however even these had not yet included the new Pre-Delta National Park.
The next morning, on our way to the downtown car rental agency, we passed though a park that was crowded with people watching a stage filled with dignitaries. As luck would have it, this was the day Prince Charles of England was to make his appearance at this park and give a speech to the citizens of Argentina. This visit was part of steps to improve relations between Britain and Argentina after the Falkland Islands (Islas Malvinas) confrontation. We delayed our travel to hear the speech, watch the parade of mounted soldiers, and take photographs of the event.
THE SEARCH BEGINS
After we rented our car, we found our way out of the city and reached a toll-road that initiated our 230-mile trip to our estancia. We left the toll road at Zarate and crossed over the Paraná Delta to the East where a paved two-lane road took us north to the town of Victoria. Along the way we found numerous roadside marshes filled with colourful aquatic plants. We stopped often on our route to inspect the plants and take photographs. We saw arrowheads (Sagittaria montevidensis) by the thousands, as well as water poppy (Hydrocleys nymphoides) azure water hyacinth (Eichhornia azurea), and water snowflake (Nymphoides humboldtiana). We reached our estancia El Cerrito, just north of Victoria, in the early evening. Our hostess, Alicia de Reggiaedo, and her staff gave us a warm welcome and showed us our rooms.
The next morning we met with "Chulengo", the owner of our charter boat, at the estancia so that our hostess, Alicia, could act as our interpreter. Although the Irupé (Victoria Waterlily) had been seen in the area in previous years, our boat owner had not noticed it this year. It seems that the location of Irupé varies from year to year depending upon the height of the water in the delta. In particular, there had been a large flood in the Paraná the previous winter which had destroyed many of the Irupé sites. These floods and the water variability are due to the amount of rainfall in the distant highlands and the amount of water released by large hydroelectric dams upstream in Argentina and Brazil. The boat owner was very familiar with the best locations for fishing and hunting, but we were the first to ask for Irupé. However, he promised to give us his most knowledgeable (but non-English speaking) boatman, "Betto", as a guide. Then we went to the municipal wharf to board our boat.
For the rest of the morning we cruised along many of the water channels of the Paraná Delta. On most of the isolated islands in the Delta, we saw horses and cattle grazing, with many of the plants and bushes nearly stripped of leaves by heavy grazing. Those islands without grazing animals had a wide variety of moisture loving plants (including Thalia, Hibiscus, Canna, Cyperus, Ludwigia, Pontederia, Wedelia, Echinodorus, etc.), but no Irupé.
After returning to the estancia for lunch, Chulengo indicated he would make some inquiries among the other fisherman to see if they knew of any Irupé locations. When we returned to the boat after lunch, we were informed that Irupé had been seen near shore a few miles north of Victoria. We headed our boat in that direction, this time having on board the boat owner’s teenage son, another Walter, acting as interpreter. Although we searched diligently for Irupé along the shoreline, we found none. When we were about ready to give up, a shepherd was seen close to shore, and our guide made inquiries. The shepherd pointed to a nearby island, containing a few trees, from which he had seen some Irupé. We went to the island, went on shore, but no Irupé could be seen. Our enterprising boatman however, climbed a nearby tree and spotted them growing behind a dense border of tall reeds. It wasn’t until we were nearly on top of them that we could see the large leaves of the Victorias beyond the dense thicket of reeds. This became ‘Site 1’.
These Victorias were immense, with leaves averaging 1.5 to 1.8 metres (5 to 6 feet) in diameter with a rim height of 15 to 18cm (6 to 7 inches). Walter measured the largest leaf that had a diameter of 2.1 metres (7 feet). Each plant typically had 9 healthy surface leaves. We noticed that the high rims kept the leaves from overlapping each other and allowed the leaves to ride over and smother many competing aquatic plants. In addition, the rims seemed to act as fortress walls in a battle for sunlight, keeping other plants off the Irupé leaves. The water depth averaged 75cm (30 inches) that made it easy to wade among the plants to look for ripe seedpods.
It was immediately obvious that we were a bit early in the season (March 10) for seed harvesting, because no seedpods were fully ripe. There were more flower buds than seedpods. From the look of things, the Irupé expected at least two months of active growing season ahead of them. The water was clear enough so that we could see to the bottom and select the most ripe seed pods for harvesting. This was slow work in that it required approaching the plant centre through the outermost floating leaves and stems with their sharp thorns. Cutting off and lifting out the prickly seedpod was particularly tricky. Walter was the braver in this activity, doing all the work by touch, and Butch was the more practical, using a macheté.
In the open areas of the pond, we also found numerous aquatic plants competing for growing space. The water snowflake (Nymphoides humboldtiana, similar to the N. indica of Australia, but with smaller leaves) was probably the most common plant. They had distylous* flowers that ensured cross pollination. Another floating leaf plant was the water lily Nymphaea prolifera, which has the curious habit of producing numerous tuberiferous flowers. We saw no normal flowers with the usual complement of petals, stamens and stigma. Instead, each flower produced a tuber and/or multiple flowers which each produced a tuber. One plant could have a hundred tubers sticking out on the ends of its flower stems. In contrast, the most striking floral display was made by groupings of Eichhornia azurea with their clusters of violet flowers.
(* for a full explanation of the term ‘distylous’ see Darwin (1877))
We measured the water temperature as 24.4 oC (76 oF) at the surface, 21.6 oC (71 oF) at the bottom, a 70 PPM total hardness (3.9o GH), a pH of 6.5, and location of 32.5o south latitude (equivalent to the latitude of San Diego, California or Charleston, South Carolina).
After collecting the Irupé seedpods, we loaded the boat, returned to the dock, and drove back to the estancia. We put the seedpods in pails of water to allow the pods to open on their own. It is generally known that fully ripe pods split open and disperse their seeds within one day of cutting. Less ripe pods would take longer or not open at all. This allowed us to catalogue the relative ripeness of the seeds we harvested.
Our experience of the first day of plant hunting indicated that we would have to come up with a more efficient method of l ocating the Irupé. Even if we were within a few hundred feet of the Irupé, it could easily be hidden from sight by reeds or tall bushes. Walter made the very practical suggestion that a wide expanse of territory could be observed by utilizing an air search. The six-foot leaves would be easily spotted on the water surface of ponds and streams in contrast to the other vegetation. Our estancia hostess acted as concierge and located a pilot and airplane for our use the next afternoon.
Early the next day we decided to drive the 50 miles north to visit the Pre-Delta National Park. Our hostess/concierge had made a call to the park ranger there and he agreed to take us by boat to view the local flora. Here we found the vegetation rich and so solidly packed along the riverbank that it was impossible to see the interior of the islands from the boat. The contrast between the natural, ungrazed, state of the vegetation in the park and the heavily grazed state outside of the park was striking. One tributary of the river led to the pond containing the Irupé, but the water level was so low, the boat could not navigate it. Consequently we had to disembark the boat and mount a small rise where we could observe the Irupé some distance away. We used binoculars to get a closer view. We had hoped to pick up some literature here on the flora of Pre-Delta National Park, but only a single pamphlet was available, and it mentioned only the aquatic plants Irupé, Helechitos and Repollitos de Aqua. [Translation from Jorge Monteverde: Helechitos = little fern (Azolla filiculoides), Repollitos de Aqua = little water cabbage (Pistia stratiotes)]
When we returned to the Estancia, we were told that the original plane we had reserved was not available because the local airport in Victoria had run out of aviation gasoline. However with some additional phone calls, our resourceful hostess found a second pilot and plane at another airport. He would fly into our local airport to pick us up. As it turned out, the airplane was used for crop dusting and it arrived with all the spraying paraphernalia still attached. In order for us to have an unobstructed view out of the plane, the pilot removed the door on the passenger side. We checked our seat belts.
We told the pilot (through our interpreter Alicia) to fly north at an altitude of about 100-200 metres (330-660 feet) above the delta to the location where we collected the Irupé seed pods the day before. This would give us an idea of how easily the Irupé could be seen from the air. We then took off and in a short time flew directly over our original collecting site using Butch’s GPS receiver to navigate. We found that the Irupé stood out clearly from among the surrounding vegetation. It was also quite obvious that the site was much larger than we first thought. Much had been hidden from our view at ground level by the tall reeds.
As we flew further north, we found many more Irupé sites in sheltered bays or shallow remnants of former river channels (ox-bow lakes). Site 1 was clearly one of these ox-bow lake environments. No Irupé were seen in the major river channels. From the air it was noticeable that where the Irupé grew the water was relatively clear and calm, while in the main river channels the water was opaque with silt suspended by the turbulence of the moving water. As we passed over each Irupé site, Butch would take a photograph and store the geographical location in his Global Positioning System (GPS) receiver.
After we recorded a dozen sites north of Victoria, we turned around and flew south. Although we traveled some miles south of Victoria, we could find no further Irupé sites. Because there are over 5000 square miles of Paraná Delta south of Victoria, we decided to put off further exploration until another day.
When we came back to the estancia, Butch connected the digital camera to his laptop computer to give a good display of all the sites flown over. We were able to electronically mark the most suitable ones on a detailed topographic map by using the stored GPS latitude-longitude data.
The next day, we chartered our boat and guide again, along with the owner’s teenage son, Walter, as interpreter. We visited several of the newly found nearby Irupé sites in the sheltered bays, but noticed that the seedpods were even less ripe than the ones found at our original site. We surmised that this might have been because these bays were connected to the main channels. The water was deeper and cooler, thus slowing down Irupé development. Nonetheless, we did harvest a few of the seedpods so that we could later determine the viability of less ripe seeds.
From the photographs we had taken from the air, it did seem there would be some promising landlocked Irupé pond sites further north, but Betto, our guide, indicated that there were two problems. The sites immediately north were on private property owned by another estancia. Because we had called them and then decided not to stay on that estancia because of its high price, they would not give us permission to enter now. The route to the sites further north was not a straight line and we didn’t have enough gas for a round trip (wayside marine gas stations were not available in this part of the delta). Consequently, we went back to the original site that we had discovered two days earlier to explore the hidden 90% of the pond we had missed the first time. Because of the wider selection of plants available in this formerly hidden area, and with more time available, we were able to discover and collect the ripest seed pods of the whole trip, and Butch was able to take many pictures, including the one on the cover of this journal. We also looked into many of the flowers to look for pollinating beetles that have been reported in V. amazonica flowers. None were found. It appears that most of these flowers are self-pollinated. However, Butch did liberate a ready-to-open flower bud to display at the dinner table that night. This caused such a sensation at the estancia that even the cook was brought out to see the flower.
The next day was devoted to preparing the Irupé seeds to take back home. We found that the ripest pods had already split open and the seeds with their aril were floating in the buckets. The seeds were scrubbed to remove the aril. The fully ripe seedpods contained an average of five hundred seeds that were olive green in color, each 9 to 10 millimeters (3/8") in diameter, and firm to the touch. The less ripe seedpods were cut open and inspected. The seeds were smaller, lighter in colour, and softer to the touch. The seeds that were reasonably firm to touch were saved; those that were soft were discarded.
We had also collected some unknown aquatic plants of horticultural interest that we cleaned up to ease their way through US customs. We could only identify them as to family or genera because we had no botanical keys to Argentine plants at hand. These, we hoped, would be grown on and identified later.
On the last day, we packed up, had a walk around the estancia (which we had no time to do before), and then drove that afternoon the 230 miles back to the Buenos Aires International Airport. There we had a last drink together and caught our separate planes, which left a few hours apart. Butch had no trouble bringing his seeds through customs at Chicago Airport, but Walter, with his selection of unidentified plants at Miami Airport, had to have them inspected at the Headquarters Inspection Station. This meant that they would be delayed one day for inspection and then sent by Federal Express to him the next day. Walter did finally receive all the seeds and plants, and the delay did little harm.
Most of the collected seed were passed on to the Victoria Conservancy for final distribution. Those interested in seeds from this trip should contact the Victoria Conservancy.
This was a wonderful and very successful trip. With solid preparation and planning, we were able to take a quick one week trip to South America and collect Victoria cruziana seeds from very close to the limit of their range into the temperate region of Argentina. We hope that these seeds will add to the genetic diversity of the Victoria waterlilies grown in cultivation by members of the IWGS and other enthusiasts around the world.
About the Authors
Walter Pagels, a former editor of the Water Garden Journal and member of the IWGS Hall of Fame, continues to seek out rare aquatic and wetland plants on his travels.
Lindsay ‘Butch’ Weaver is an electrical engineer, living in Boulder, Colorado. He is a member of the Colorado Water Garden Society and is currently growing Victorias in ponds at his home and workplace.
All the photographs for this article were supplied courtesy of Butch Weaver and are his copyright.
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