This small, elegant glasshouse is another of Kew’s classic listed buildings.
Located opposite the northern entrance of the Palm House, this square glazed structure encloses a circular pond spanning 36 feet. It was completed in 1852 specifically to showcase the giant Amazon waterlily (now called Victoria amazonica), which had first been encountered by European botanists in South America at the beginning of the 19th century.
With ironwork by Richard Turner who had built the Palm House in the preceding decade, the Waterlily House was at the time the widest single-span glasshouse in the world.
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Although other waterlilies and lotus thrived in the new house, its intended inhabitant fared less well. Within six years the V. amazonica was dwelling elsewhere and the Waterlily House became a tropical habitat displaying red, white and blue waterlilies, ferns, papyrus and hanging gourds.
When Joseph Hooker became Director of Kew in 1865 he replanted the glasshouse to showcase plants of medicinal and culinary value. It was not converted to its original use until 1991. Today it is Kew’s hottest and most humid environment, housing a wide range of tropical ornamental aquatic plants and climbers.
Conservation and restoration
The Waterlily House suffered extensive damage during wartime. In 1965 its roof glazing pattern and ventilators were altered and in 1991 its alloy glazing bars were replaced with stainless steel ones.
Things to look out for
In the summer a giant Victoria cruziana waterlily blooms. European botanists first encountered this plant, together with V. amazonica, in Bolivia in 1801. Both plants were subsequently named after Queen Victoria. The huge leaves of V. cruziana have protruding ribs on the underside which trap air and so provide buoyancy. The flowers that only last for 48 hours are large and fragrant. They start out white then darken to pink and purple before sinking beneath the surface of the water.
Look carefully at the structure of the leaves of Victoria amazonica. One of several V. amazonica plants germinated at Kew in the mid-19th century was sent to architect Joseph Paxton and the structure of the waterlily’s leaf is said to have inspired his design for the Crystal Palace which housed the Great Exhibition of 1851.
Gourds at Kew
The Waterlily House is also home to a collection of gourds. These climbing plants are members of the Cucurbitaceae family, along with cucumbers, melons and marrows. The species grown depend on the seed available.
Some recent exhibits include the wax gourd (Benincasa hispida) and the spiny-fruited hedgehog gourd (Cucumis metuliferous). The former has a layer covering its mature fruits that is used in Asia to make candles. Its fruits are also often cooked to make vegetable curry. The latter has reddish fruits filled with seeds in a jelly-like pulp. It is grown commercially in New Zealand and marketed as ‘Kiwiano’, following the success of the kiwi fruit.
Gourds were one of the earliest fruits to be domesticated by humans. They have been used for centuries to make cups and bowls, musical instruments and bird-houses. In Neolithic times gourd skins were used to replace missing portions of skulls during surgery. Kew has many items made from gourds in its Economic Botany Collection.