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Waterlily House

This small, elegant glasshouse is another of Kew’s classic listed buildings.

Photo of the Waterlily House in summer

Waterlily House in summer

Historical information

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.

Find out more in this short film:

Displays

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 amazonicaOne 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.

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Comments

11 March 2014
its big and nice and I wish its my house but I expect its hot in there
4 April 2014
Hi - we also came last year and found the lily house closed without warning (shame as I had gone on at length about the house to my wife) - Great to hear it is open again and will come along this month - but when are flowering times please?
9 September 2013
We came to Kew especially to see the water lilly house...CLOSED... for renovation... as is the other large glass building...thanks for telling us...
9 September 2013
Dear Dennis, I am sorry that you were disappointed to find the Waterlily House closed on the day of your visit and apologise for not having indicated this on the relevant page of the website, only on the Visitor Notices page. This has now been rectified. The Waterlily House will reopen on 5 October when our spectacular Pumpkin Pyramid will be displayed as part of the autumn phase of Kew’s IncrEdibles festival. As you noted, the Temperate House is now closed for refurbishment: further details at <a href="http://www.kew.org/visit-kew-gardens/garden-attractions-A-Z/temperate-house-restoration/">Temperate House restoration</a>
29 May 2013
Simply gorgeous - that's all I can say about the water lilies and the house itself is a wonderful, if people bother to look up at the way the roof beams support the structure without blocking the light. One of my favourite places on my visits, I'm always trying to get the perfect picture of the flowers and leaves on the ink dark water of the pond.
3 May 2013
Hi Anton, the lotus flowers between approximately June and August. Enjoy your visit!
1 May 2013
At what time of year does your lotus flower? Thank you
13 March 2013
Hi Patrick, we thoroughly recommend a visit to Kew Gardens this spring including a visit to the Waterlily House which reopens on 29 March. We regret that for both health and safety reasons and to protect Kew’s valuable collection of living plants, we cannot allow children to pose for photographs on the leaves of the Victoria amazonica (giant waterlily).
13 March 2013
We have a 4.5 yr old daughter and clearly at that age she has a fascination with all things natural. We live in Hampshire, so a trip to Kew would be a day trip. Do you think it would be justified to come before the summer, perhaps combining the spring blossoms with the glass houses, in particular the lilly houses. On that note would be it be at all possible, when the pads have grown, to have a picture taken of our daughter, sitting on one of the pads?
11 July 2012
I visited the waterlily house yesterday (sheltering from the rain!) and noticed that a couple of the lily pads had flipped over. I was wondering how this happens, is it natural or perhaps man-made to illustrate the structure of the pads?
19 March 2012
Hi Vicki, thanks for getting in touch. The Waterlily House reopens on 31 March 2012.
16 March 2012
Has the waterlily house reopened yet? Thanks
20 September 2011
Thanks for posting this question Helen. The species name that you are looking for is Ludwigia sedoides.
5 September 2011
Please what's the waterlily at the far end of the pond away from the entrance that has lots of small leaves in a fibonacci-like pattern. Ludwigia ?, but there are lots of ludwigias.
26 July 2010
Thanks for your comment Ian. Here's a list of the chilli species in the Waterlily House. Capsicum 'Chain fair', Capsicum 'Purple Tiger', Capsicum 'Prairie Fire' and Capsicum 'Bangkok upright'.
25 July 2010
What chillis are growing in the Waterlily House? They didn't seem to be labelled.
15 July 2010
The Waterlily house is one of my absolute favourite places - it is full with so many unusual and diverse plants - I could stay all day - only it's too hot! I tell everyone about it and insist they MUST visit it.
16 June 2010
Visited on 15th June - quite the most stunning, beautiful and tranquil location. All that is needed is Jeremy Fisher!