When hunting, the search for the elusive quarry is half of the fun. Searching the Brazilian rainforest for the Giant Amazon Water Lily, Victoria amazonica was much better than half the fun. This giant among aquatic plants that graces the water gardens of conservatories, like Longwood Gardens or the Missouri Botanical Gardens and even large estate ponds is found growing naturally in the region of central Brazil known as Amazonia. The famed Longwood Hybrid is distinguished from the species form in that it displays bright red edges Immense leaves, up to seven feet in diameter, float on the surface of hidden "ponds" in the deep forest tributaries of the great Amazon River. The spiny leaves and fragrant night-blooming flowers are found throughout the year, but are more difficult to reach during the Amazon basin's low-water time. Residing in hidden ponds and lagoons, this magnificent, in fact the largest of all aquatic plants, can be difficult to locate and as tough to get to.
The quest for the Victoria, actually for the seed of this tropical wonder, began in early November with a flight to Manaus a Brazilian city in the state Amazonas, located at the confluence of the Amazon River and the Rio Negro. Leaving behind the cold of Virginia, the journey to South America put us three degrees south of the equator, while technically Spring, the days had all the trappings of Summer back home.
Daily adventures from our home base, a thirty-plus passenger boat, included cruising the rivers, watching pink dolphins fish off of our bow. Hikes into the rainforest found us looking for whatever could be found, flowers, animals, insects, and yes, birds like the parrots, macaws and toucans. Nighttime treks by land or small boat took us deep into the forest searching the dark with powerful spotlights. Glowing eyes sparkled from the water's surface, telling us of the presence of caiman or even an occasional snake. Toads and Tarantulas, monkeys and Monkey Spiders, you never knew what you would find.
What we wanted to find, but so far had not, was the Victoria. Frustration over not having seen the first evidence of this plant was tempered by all of the exciting exploration taking place. We knew the plant could be just around the next bend, but where? Our guide decided to charter a flight over the rainforest to cover territory that extended as far as the eye could see, even from a thousand feet in the air.
We found that we were not far but could never have found the Victoria without aerial reconnaissance. After locating the plants from the air, we boarded small boats that we always kept in tow behind the main boat and headed up a small tributary that was home to a small fishing and farming community, the landmark for our search. The villages in this region are temporary due to the twenty to thirty-foot fluctuation of the river level. Homes are either built on stilts, high up on the riverbank, or are constructed on massive floating logs and tethered to the bank. The place we were heading for stood out curiously from the others. This eight-person family who owned the home where we stopped lived in what appeared to be a two-room, floating house, sparsely furnished. The thing that stood out to us was the fact the place was beautifully landscaped with lush, tropical aquatic plants. The plants were in full flower and planted around the ends and along the sides of the house. It was obvious to all that while living in what we would consider primitive conditions, pride in their home was very evident.
Our group beached the boats at a steep bank nearby and waited while our guide and crew slashed a path into the rainforest with their ever-present machetes. A short walk through dense and often spiny understory growth, we arrived at a low-lying wetland. It is interesting to note that while we had gone up a fifteen-foot bank and then a couple hundred yards into the forest, this small lake would soon merge with the river as the waters of the river reach their summertime levels. Where we stood, the forest floor would be ten to fifteen feet under the water, forcing animal and insect life to move into the treetops. For now, the Victoria amazonica that we had searched for lay before us in knee-deep mud covered in waist deep water.
The plants were in their early-season stage of growth, so the foliage was not perfect, but the plants were in flower. While keeping a vigilant eye for caiman and snakes, we obtained water and soil samples and a global position via satellite (to identify the specific plant for future harvest), leaf tissue samples for DNA identification. The seedpods could now be collected. The large spiny fruits, about the size of a softball are collected and bagged for later processing back on the boat.
The meticulous handling of the seedpod is to obtain a known seed source of what will hopefully turn out to be a completely pure strain of Victoria amazonica. The reason this is important is there has been some cross-pollination with a Peruvian strain, resulting in a hybrid that has made its way to the United States. The hybrids have proven to be problematical for breeders in the US who need pure seed stock from which to grow their parent plants for future hybridization. The DNA is analyzed and recorded in a seed bank in Denver CO for those who have need of the pure seed. If the seed turns out to be pure V. amazonica, then the exact location of the source plant is known and can be revisited.
The three hours or so it took to harvest the seed was interesting and fun, but nothing compared to the thrill of the hunt. Back on board, the laborious process of separating the seed from the pod begins. Once cleaning is complete, the seed is cataloged, stored and eventually brought into the United States through customs and the close inspection process of the Agriculture Department.
Throughout the remainder of the trip, our delegation was treated to a variety of activities, all centered on the tropical rainforest. Villagers in the area were especially welcoming of us. We were a source of entertainment and interest to the people, young and old. Our group was more willing to go off of the beaten track in search of plants, insects and animals and the local people lent a hand in finding things of interest. Fishermen were encountered regularly as fish was a mainstay of their diet and economy. Living on the river and its tributaries, the villagers not only caught fish for food and for consumption by those who couldn't fish for themselves, but also put their skills to the test in search of tropical fish. The tropical fish are netted for sale to brokers along the river, who passed them along to a wholesale distributor in Manaus. The wholesaler shipped the fish on to the rest of world via airfreight. These fish are the ones most often found in your local pet stores.
While out and about around the rainforest, if we saw something that piqued our curiosity we had only to say the word and our guide would make sure we were able to see it. Cutting a new path into the dense understory growth was no big deal to our machete-wielding leaders. Need a bridge or steps to get there? No problem, a machete makes short work of trees selected for construction. Before we knew it we would be on our way into the forest up a stairway complete with handrails.
A favorite trip that we experienced several times was a nighttime visit to the jungle. Sometimes we would cruise along the edge of the water and peer into the growth looking for animals and insects. We were rewarded many times over with glimpses of caiman and snakes, monkeys and owls and an occasional venomous spider. Our high-powered spot beams illuminated even the fish under the water. To add to the adventure, our group took lights into the rainforest to look into tree trunks, under logs and in the brush to locate anything that creeps and crawls. An adventure not for the fainthearted, we spent hours walking in the dark, hoping for scary stuff and finding plenty of it.
The dark is an especially exciting time of noises and pure dark before moonrise. Near the equator the sun sets rapidly with awesome colors and hues. Soon enough the black of night takes over, awaiting the rising moon. But until the moon is up, the stars are magnificent, making stargazing a real experience. Crowding on the top deck, we leaned back in chairs, contortionists looking for constellations and falling stars. The Leonid meteor shower was at its' peak and we not disappointed one bit. Relaxing under the stars found us relating the days stories and learning about our new friends.
Finding new friends was the best part of the trip. People from the U.S. and Great Britain were on this foray, but we also learned of a culture vastly different from our own, yet strangely similar in many ways. Families and community are important to us and to them. Survival depends upon our care for our environment and economy. The daily struggle goes on for us all, but with friends in the world-wide neighborhood, we are all better off.