Mr. Allen’s Amazonian Lily

In the summer of 1853, an Amazonian water-lily blossomed in Salem, the second to be cultivated in North America, under the careful watch of amateur botanist John Fisk Allen (1807-76).  Descended from several Salem shipping families, Allen had the means to pursue various horticultural pursuits, and he maintained a greenhouse on Flint Street (not far from his Chestnut Street residence) where he cultivated several varieties of grapes as well as tropical flowers.  He is part of what I am realizing was an active and influential botanical circle in nineteenth-century Salem, with Nathaniel Hawthorne’s uncle, Robert Manning, right in the center. Allen wanted to share his success with the world, or at least his world, so he commissioned America’s first chromolithographic printer, Boston-based William Sharp, to produce six detailed plates of the lily for inclusion in his account of  its cultivation, Victoria Regia; or The Great Water Lily of America (Boston, 1854).

I have seen a really nice edition of this volume in person, and the plates below (from the Internet Archive digital edition) do not do justice to the real thing.  They are really stunning, but apparently Sharp also took a bit of artistic license.  Allen’s text is interesting as well, as he follows the rules of strict scientific observation and tells his readers everything the lily was doing that Salem summer long ago, down to the minute.

The first two cycles of the plant’s growth:

From first flowering through full bloom:

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