Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 2/The lace-leaf plant at Kew

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Few of the residents in London able to command occasionally a leisure hour for recreation and enjoyment are strangers to the National Garden at Kew, and few from the provinces make a visit of any duration to London without devoting at least one day to this most agreeable place of public resort; while to many intelligent and scientific foreigners it constitutes one of the attractions by which they are drawn to our shores. The rich and extensive herbarium of Kew; the number and value of the specimens, arranged in admirable order in its museum of economic botany; its magnificent and well-filled palm-house, containing some of the most gorgeous trees of tropical climates; and its smaller, but scarcely less valuable, houses filled with tropical ferns, succulents, aloes, and aquatic plants; all these, not to mention others, amply repay a visit at any season of the year; while the excellent arrangements of the present Director of the Garden are such as to afford to the visitor every possible gratification.

The attraction of the garden is increased by the addition of rare and valuable plants which it is constantly receiving from every quarter of the globe. Many of the most choice and beautiful specimens from foreign countries found in English and even continental collections were first acclimated here, as in the instance of the superb Victoria regia, one of the most magnificent of modern additions to our stove aquaria. To this class of plants has also more recently been added a smaller but equally rare and singularly curious plant, which Sir W. J. Hooker designated, on account of the delicate and beautiful open-work structure of its leaves, the Lace-leaf; or Ouvirandra fenestralis, from Madagascar.

This singular vegetable production, which Sir W. J. Hooker speaks of as “one of the most wonderful and curious of plants,” has not, for some years past, been unknown to botanists: dried and other specimens had been brought to Europe, and there was a splendid plant preserved in spirits in the museum of the Jardin des Plantes at Paris; but the living plant had not been seen in Europe till Mr. Ellis, on his return from Madagascar, in 1855, brought a number of plants to England. Dr. Lindley had pointed out the plant to Mr. Ellis previous to his visit to the country in which it had been found. A drawing of the plant, made at Mauritius, being shown to the natives of Madagascar, one of them at length recognised in the drawing a plant with the habitat of which he was acquainted, went in search of it, and, after two or three days’ absence, returned, having discovered the objects of his search, but failed to procure any of them on account, as he stated, of his apprehensions of the crocodiles, by which the stream was infested, and who it was supposed could scarcely be expected to forego a meal for “the advancement of science.” At length the native brought back a lot of nice green healthy-looking plants, which (being deposited in a tub with some of the mud from the bed of the stream) were placed in the ship’s hold, where—after narrowly escaping the infliction of the sentence of an ignorant and ill-natured skipper, who had ordered the cook of the ship to pour boiling water upon them—they reached Mauritius in safety. Here a broad-based tub being provided, they were planted in earth, and covered with water, the tub being fitted with a glazed lid, admitting light and excluding sea-water, but opening by means of a hinge to allow fresh water from the shore to be given to the plants at the Cape, St. Helena, and Ascension. Thus carefully treated, they reached England safely in the spring of 1855.

When Sir W. J. Hooker heard of the arrival of a living plant in England, his concern for its preservation scarcely allowed him to feel sure of its safe custody until it should be actually in the aquarium at Kew, where a plant in flower was very soon afterwards placed. Plants were also presented to the Gardens of the Horticultural Society at Chiswick, to the Botanic Gardens at the Regent’s Park, and to the Crystal Palace. The Lace-leaf plant has since been added to several collections in England, and has been sent to the Continent and to North America. It is also stated in some of the public journals to have been adopted as a pattern for the manufacture of artificial flowers, of which, it is added, large quantities have been made.

The cultivation of the plant has not hitherto been generally successful in England, owing, apparently, to attempts to grow it in water kept at too low a temperature, as it seems to thrive best in water kept at about 80°. The plant at the Regent’s Park has been sent back to Mr. Ellis for the recovery of its health, and is understood to be promising well.

Sir W. J. Hooker published a scientific description of this remarkable plant in the London Botanical Journal for January, 1856. In the description there given, after noticing the curious fork-like inflorescence, it is stated that the leaf “seems like a living fibrous skeleton rather than a perfect leaf. The longitudinal fibres, or nerves, surrounded by a portion of parenchyma, extend in curved lines along its entire length, and are united by thread-like nerves or nervelets, crossing them at right angles, from side to side, at short distances from each other. The colour is bright green, and the whole leaf looks as if composed of fine tendrils, wrought after a most regular pattern, so as to resemble a piece of bright green lace or open needle-work. Each leaf rises from the crown on the root like a short, delicate, pale-green or yellow fibre, gradually unfolding its feathery sides, and increasing in size as it spreads beneath the water. It is scarcely possible to imagine any object of the kind more curious and attractive than a full-grown plant, with its dark green leaves forming the limit of a circle two or three feet in diameter, and exhibiting in the transparent water within that circle leaves in every state of development, as regards brightness, colour, and variation of size. Nor is it less curious to notice that these slender and fragile structures, apparently not more substantial than gossamer, and flexile as a feather, still possess a tenacity and wiriness which allows the delicate leaf to be raised by the hand to the surface of the water without injury.” Sir William J. Hooker remarks, in the course of his account of the plant, “We shall be surprised if all who are interested in horticulture do not possess themselves of so curious and beautiful an object. Being entirely aquatic, the leaves even submerged, we cannot doubt but it may be cultivated in glass aquaria, and even in a glass jar placed in the drawing-room, as is done with the Vallisneria spiralis, &c.”

A second species, with pink-coloured flowers, described by Sir W. J. Hooker as Ouvirandra Bernieriana, has since been introduced by Mr. Ellis, who has succeeded in raising young plants of the Ouvirandra fenestralis from seed.

Ouvirandra, the native name of the plant, has been adopted by botanists to designate the genus to which it belongs. In the language of the people of Madagascar, the name signifies yam of the water—ouvi being the name for yam, and rano (to which, for the sake of sound, the d is added,) signifying water. It is a useful as well as a curious plant, and is called ouvi because the white fleshy root, though small as compared with the yam, resembles it in structure, and is sometimes used by the natives of the country as an article of food.

The plant grows on the lower and hottest portions of the country in the level parts of streams from the mountains, that seem to wash down the soil by which it is nourished. It is found at a depth of from a foot to three feet or more, and it is a singular fact that, however shallow the water may be, the leaves are always beneath the surface, while, whatever may be the depth of the stream, the flower-stalk always rises above the surface, and the inflorescence is developed and the seeds ripened under the influence of the sun and air.

The conditions under which the culture of the Ouvirandra fenestralis has been pursued at Kew have been so favourable, and its treatment so successful, that it has grown remarkably well, attaining a size and exhibiting a freshness and vigour equal to any attained in its native streams. During the summer months it has recently formed one of the choice attractions of the garden, and was, for a time, placed in the house built for the Victoria regia, though during the winter it requires the protection of a more sheltered position and more uniform temperature.

The illustration of this beautiful plant is from a living specimen.

W. Ellis.