The Water Gardens and surrounding ponds at Hudson Gardens in Littleton display more than 140 varieties of aquatic plants, which serve as a cover for a variety of minnows, tadpoles and other small critters. With a minimum amount of patience, one can spot a frog sitting on a floating leaf, and in the evening those frogs sing and serenade the surroundings.
The large leaves of the Victoria water lily provide an especially fine perch for these small pond critters as they also offer shade for the swimming residents of the ponds. Each leaf can grow 10 inches in a day, according to material provided at the Gardens. The Victoria water lilies were discovered in Bolivia in 1801 and are only native to South American river basins, such as the Amazon. Botanists and plant collectors were bringing them to Europe by the mid-19th century, where the first display was at Britain's Crystal Palace.
In 1851, specimens were also introduced in the U.S. In 1960, Longwood Gardens, near Philadelphia, introduced the “Victoria Longwood,” which is the variety found at Hudson Gardens.
These remarkable plants, with the second largest leaf of any plant in the world, were introduced in the Littleton gardens in 1997 and have been growing well since. This summer, plant lovers can register to be notified when a Victoria water lily is about to open in the evening. Members of the active Colorado Water Garden Society maintain the Water Garden ponds and members meet with viewers to experience the opening of this spectacular bloom. The Victoria water lily is hermaphroditic: It changes from female to male overnight as it blooms.
Leaf pads can expand more than 20 inches in a day, growing to as much as 8 feet in diameter, with each leaf lasting about a week. For most of the year, the Victoria water lily is distinguished only by these large lily pads, but in late July and early August, night-blooming flowers appear and last only 48 hours. Each plant produces about 10 to 12 flowers a season, according to the publication available at Hudson Gardens. The day before the plant flowers, a tennis ball-sized bud rises from the water and will open to reveal as many as 50 petals. Its fragrance resembles tuberose, pineapple and banana. In its native setting, the bloom reopens a second night, admitting pollinating scarab beetles, which don't live here — only in South America. The flower closes on the beetles, changes from female to male and opens to release the insects that have fertilized the plants.
Hudson Gardens' information also says that the Victoria water lily is over 160 million years old — it appeared when South America was still connected to Africa and Antarctica. There are two species: Victoria Amazonica and Victoria Cruziana.
Natives of South America make flour from the seeds of the Victoria water lily to bake cakes.
Hudson Gardens' Water Lily Pond was created in 2012 to house the Victoria water lily collection. It also presents other types of water lilies and duckweed, the smallest flowering plant in the world, which looks like a dense green mat. Flowers are tiny and dangle beneath the water's surface, as do the roots. We are told that duckweed, often thought to indicate an unhealthy pond, actually helps balance the ecosystem and provides shade for the underwater wildlife. It also provides a source of fat and protein for birds.
While visiting the Water Gardens, take time to look for the lotus, which, like the water lilies, is rooted in a natural soil bed under the water.
Hudson Gardens, at 6115 S. Santa Fe Drive, is open sunrise to sunset daily. Admission is free. Parking near entrance. In addition to ponds, flower gardens are in full bloom. Visit HudsonGardens.org for information about classes and special programming. The popular Sunday concerts are not being held this summer.
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