Collecting Amazon Lilies in the wild

Andrew Carrick tells the story of re-establishing lilies in the Adelaide Botanic Gardens

Guyana’s spectacular Kaieteur Falls

In August 2005 I received a phone call asking “do you have a valid passport and can you travel to Guyana in 30 days time?”

I was being offered a unique opportunity to participate in an expedition to Guyana, led by Botanic Gardens’ Director Stephen Forbes, retracing the footsteps of the Adelaide Botanic Gardens’ second Director Richard Schomburgk.

Schomburgk travelled throughout Guyana during 1840-1844 and in 1865 he was responsible for the importation of Victoria amazonica seed to Adelaide. In 1868 the Victoria House was constructed in the centre of the Gardens. It has housed a display of Victoria amazonica ever since.

The Victoria House was replaced with the Amazon Waterlily Pavilion, a state of the art, purpose-built glasshouse, as part of the Gardens’ 150 year anniversary. New genetic seed material, along with other plants, were targeted for collection in Guyana, to grow and display in the newly-constructed building in Adelaide.

My resounding response to both questions was yes and, after a series of injections, a wad of malaria medication and copious amounts of sun cream, I set off with a small team of Gardens staff. Joined by local and overseas scientists, we were bound for the furthest reaches of Guyana – in search of Victoria amazonica.

After landing in Georgetown and meeting with our local guide and representatives of the Guyana Botanic Gardens and National Parks Commission, we departed for Kaieteur Falls (the world’s largest, single-drop waterfall by the volume of water flowing over it) in search of Giant Tank Bromeliads (Brocchinia micrantha).

Only accessible by light aircraft, the approach took us skimming over the densely vegetated canopy and through the waterfall mist into a clearing adjacent to the falls and research centre.

After a short walk through the jungle to the rocky outcrops of the falls, we found the bromeliads and were fortunate to also find the Golden Rocket Frog (Anomaloglossus beebei), endemic to the eastern edge of the mountain range, who lives its entire life in the well of the plant. Departing that afternoon to Lethem, a town bordering Brazil, we were met with our Indigenous guides that, for the next 7 days, would guide us up the Rio Tacutu River and onto the Rupununi River through rapids, jungles and savannahs.

Our accommodation consisted of hammocks strung off the trunks of spiny fiddlewoods (Citharexylum spinosum), high enough to avoid the ground-dwelling Pit Vipers and low enough to avoid the continual passage of Howler Monkeys (they seemed to visit every night, no matter where we camped).

Our guides were enthusiastic, joining in on our collection endeavours, always happy to stop, free climb or cut a passage into the jungle to collect and identify a flower we spotted through binoculars in the distance.

Loaded with plant presses, we left our narrow boats on the river and took a short overland trip across the Rupununi savannah. We arrived at Kananambu Ranch in the remote Southwest of Guyana where we were welcomed by naturalist and conservationist Diane McTurk.

Diane opens her ranch to researchers and eco-tourists, to support her work into the care and release of the endangered Giant Otters into the river systems.

We immediately set out that evening to witness the flowering of Victoria amazonica, marvelling in the intoxicating scent emitted from thousands of pure white flowers, covering the whole surface of the three ponds we were to explore over the coming days.

The scent attracts the pollinating beetle and cleverly the flower closes over them, trapping them for 18 hours before reopening in a brilliant pink display, releasing the pollen-covered beetles only for them to be trapped again when visiting another flower that night.

After many discussions late into the night as to how we were going to collect viable seed from the bottom of the river, and after some sampling of the locally produced rum, we fashioned a collection tool from a sapling and a disused coffee can, confident that we would be successful in our harvest the next morning.

Surprisingly, no real thought was given to the local Cayman or River Stingrays that also inhabited the river and pond system – we were more focused on the Red Bellied Piranha we had seen the Giant Otters hunt the day before. We successfully harvested seed from Akuri and Crane Ponds without incident – and were also able to extend our Herbarium pressings from leaf, flower and bud material collected from Buffalo Pond.

Since our return to Adelaide, with the material collected on this trip, horticulturalists have been successfully producing an ongoing display of Victoria amazonica, wild-collected and of known origin from Guyana and on public display in the original Heritage Victoria Pond.

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