Business Tips from a Plant…or a Giant Water Lily

Published on December 30, 2014

Victoria amazonica [Giant Water Lily] started capturing people’s attention and imagination 165 years ago. Her success began in the late 1880s when she singlehandedly caused a water garden craze in Europe that quickly spread to the U.S. The craze broadened interest in ponds to include the working class, not just the rich. It also started the revolution in pond construction materials and techniques. As a direct spinoff, Victoria also inspired a landmark building, the great-granddaddy of today’s skyscrapers. All this was accomplished using five key tactics that are relevant to building and maintaining an aquatic business—from pond building companies to retail water garden centers. As we’ve learned from experience, Mother Nature has a lot to teach us.

Stand Out from the Crowd and Get Attention

Giant water lilly architecture
The Crystal Palace design was based on the Victoria leaf and was first used for a greenhouse. The 23-acre building went up quickly because of previous experience … a valuable lesson for any business. Public domain photo credit: Sir Joseph Paxton (1803-1865).

When discovered by outsiders to the Amazon, the Giant Water Lily’s unique selling proposition (USP) was obvious and it launched a race to grow the showstopper in Europe. In 1849 Joseph Paxton was the first to get Victoria regia (as it was originally called) to bloom. He was a master at public relations and promptly sent a flower to the plant’s namesake, Queen Victoria. Paxton also physically placed his daughter on a leaf and invited the media to visit and witness the feat. The result was truly extraordinary. Lithographs, articles and poems filled the news; horticulturists and dignitaries from around the world flocked to see it. (Botanical gardens around the world still rely on Victoria’s celebrity status to attract visitors.)

Although your USP may not be so obvious, you must find it and use it to set your business apart from competitors. Integrate what makes you different into all aspects of how you run and portray your business; make it part of your culture. Use your Victoria to grab the limelight, get publicity, sell services/products—and most importantly, encourage customers to tell others. Constantly promote your uniqueness in a big way for all publicity and advertising, from signage to websites and everything in between. Be creative and milk it for all you can.

The Hidden Stuff and Staff Will Keep You Afloat

Giant Water Lilly
A business must find what makes it unique to set itself apart from competitors. The renovated botanical gardens in Naples, Florida built a new series of ponds to help attract visitors. Photo by Paula Biles.

Giant Water Lilies grow from seed every year, requiring rapid growth to attain 4- to 6-foot leaves and 12-inch blossoms. Many things that make this possible are invisible. Underneath each lily pad is a skeleton of radial ribs that supports the monstrous leaves and provides buoyancy so they don’t sink. The plant’s strength and buoyancy is critical because the Amazon’s water level changes by 40 feet every year. For defense, the skeleton and other parts of the plant have spines as protection from hungry fish. Reproduction for the next generation relies on another hidden asset: beetles, which pollinate the huge, night-blooming flowers to ensure seed production.

Like the Giant Water Lily, keep the behind-the-scenes components of your company strong. Make sure your procedures and systems can withstand the ups and downs caused by the weather, economy and Murphy’s Law. Make certain employees are well-trained and show them appreciation … often. Have backup plans for everything, not only computers and financial records. Follow Victoria’s lead; protect your hidden business assets so you can grow and survive.

Provide Constant Care and Feeding

Every business is alive, and like all living things, it needs regular care to become and remain strong. Victorias must grow from seed every year, so they consume massive amounts of fertilizer (1 lb. per week) to attain full size, along with considerable care to nurture them.

Luckily, your business is perennial and doesn’t have to be restarted every season. However, it does require both annual and ongoing maintenance. Be generous and uncompromising in the care and feeding of your company. That’s the only way it will be able to bear the weight of daily stresses and go the distance.

Endure Rough Times to Attain the Good Ones

Promotional water lilly
The Giant Water Lily still draws a crowd wherever it is grown, like this teaching pond public botanical garden at the Central University of Venezuela.

The Giant Water Lily is almost entirely covered with very sharp spines and requires mounds of @#$%&! to grow. Applying regular fertilizer doses can result in painful stabs, but the results are definitely worthwhile. That spiny defense ensures a spectacularly beautiful plant with strong, awesome leaves and monstrous flowers smelling like ripe pineapples. Everything about Victoria commands attention, so the dangerous parts fade into the background.

Unfortunately, running a company is not all peaches and cream. Strong, successful businesses are able to keep focused on their goals in order to weather the bad times.

Ignore Naysayers and Build upon What You Learn

Paxton applied what he learned from the leaf’s extraordinary strength and adapted it to his greenhouse design where Victoria was grown. The strong, supportive leaf skeleton became the basis for a new architectural style using iron ribs to support fragile glass panes. A few years later this system was applied to his entry for the building to house the 1851 Great Exhibition (the first World’s Fair). The world’s largest building, dubbed the Crystal Palace, was built in London in only six months and on budget.

[box]Resources for Info and Plants

  • Limited plants are available from select nurseries and only ship when small (pads 9 to 18 inches).
  • Google searches result in countless Victoria websites, articles and videos.
  • Wikipedia is a gold mine of Victoria and Crystal Palace information, especially in the references.
  • Victoria: “The Seductress,” by T. Anisko, is a history of the plant and introduction to cultivation.
  • “To Engineer is Human,” by H. Petroski, has a great section about Crystal Palace design and construction.[/box]However, in 1850 many folks thought Paxton’s 23-acre glass structure could never work. Contemporary media and dignitaries ranted about countless dangers, such as hail, fire, leaks, weak construction, wind damage and excessive heat. Although Paxton was not a trained architect, he clearly understood the factors involved, in part because of the greenhouse he’d already built.
    Aqua UV
    He planned for all contingencies, resulting in the first modern building with strong girders supporting a fragile surface. It was built using standardized prefab materials with an elaborate system for testing components. As a result, Paxton is well-known to architects as the forefather of today’s skyscrapers.Sir Joseph Paxton’s design inspiration was Victoria (the plant), and Victoria (the queen) knighted him for creating the Crystal Palace. The light and airy architectural marvel had 10 miles of displays showcasing 100,000 objects and also included the first bathrooms in a public building. After the Exhibition, which had 6 million visitors in five and a half months, the Crystal Palace was moved to another location and used until the 1930s.
    It pays to understand your business weakness so you can create a defense strategy. Victoria is protected against hungry fish by spines under the leaf and on most other plant parts. Photos by Paula Biles.
    It pays to understand your business weakness so you can create a defense strategy. Victoria is protected against hungry fish by spines under the leaf and on most other plant parts. Photos by Paula Biles.

    These same strategies can apply to how you set up and run your business. Learn from your previous successes and failures. Know your stuff. Listen to people you respect, both inside and outside of the business and our field. (Sometimes it pays to think outside the box and the pond.) Carefully evaluate negative comments and consider all potential problems. Then plan how to avoid them.

    The Big Picture

    The continued success of the Giant Water Lily makes it a perfect aquatic model for building a solid and memorable business. It demonstrates strategies in an obvious and truly monstrous way. The most important is to recognize what makes your company unique and use that to set you apart from the competition. Other Victoria lessons are to pay attention to the hidden portions of the company, build upon your past knowledge, plan for potential problems and put up with the @#$%&! to reach the good stuff. Keep Victoria in mind and adapt her teachings to stay afloat during the highs and lows. You will downplay the unpleasant parts of running a business and come out smelling like a rose…or at least a ripe pineapple.

    [box]Victoria Trivia

  • The ‘Longwood’ hybrid is the easiest to grow and the most common. It has red rims.
  • The largest leaf on record is 8 feet 6 and a half inches across.
  • Leaf sizes in typical ornamental ponds are 3 to 6 feet across.
  • A small weight is easily held up by the leaf.
  • A single leaf with a plywood insert supported 250 lbs.
  • Victorias bloom for three nights, changing from white to pink and finally to red.
  • The leaf’s spines don’t harm fish (including koi), who hang out in its shade.
  • Plants must be grown every year from pea-sized seeds.
  • Growing from seed is difficult and must simulate tropical conditions[/box]

For more information about the public domain images, visit

Japanese Koi Kodama

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