In the late 1960s I saw the picture of Victoria lily in the Reader’s Digest for the first time. Later, the giant water lily was beautifully featured in David Attenborough’s The Living Planet in 1984.
I was introduced to Ajahn Dr Sleamlarp Wasuwat, the water lilies expert of Thailand back in 1998. He collects, studies and cross-breeds many varieties of beautiful water lilies as part of his collections. One of his favourite in his aquatic nursery is the giant Victoria amazonica. Dr Wasuwat wrote many books on the water lilies and also the planting and care of the Victoria lily. During that period, Victoria lily was not common in the Thai market and due to its large leaves of about 1 m in diameter when it is fully grown, therefore, there were not many collectors with such generosity of garden space..
When I was managing the aquatic nursery the for the Institute of Bioscience in UPM, I decided to introduce the Victoria lily into the research facilities. There was no such known Victoria lily during that time in Malaysia as I know then and I was fortunate enough to get an import certificate from the Department of Agriculture. The phyto-certificate/permit only allows one Victoria plant.
As I later learned that Victoria lily is a very difficult plant to survive upon uprooting them from the pond bed, therefore I decided to bring in three instead of one young plants for a better chance of survival rate. Each young plant would cost me about RM 600 each. Upon arrival in KL, I managed to bring all the 3 young Victoria plants back after much explanation to the agriculture officer.
After about 6-7 months in the pond, the giant leaves of Victoria lilies almost fully cover the whole pond of 500 sq.m. in area. I studied the flowers when they bloomed at night and later collected hundred of seeds that remain dormant for a long period of time.
Then one day, I received a call from the head of the Agriculture Department yelling and screaming over the phone that I have no regards to the phyto-certificate that only allowed one plant to be imported but I brought in three instead. His fear from his screaming voice was that, to his knowledge, that Victoria lily is an invasive water plants that can be spread like like ‘lalang’ (Imperata cyclindrica) or the Egyption cyperus or water hyacinth in water. For such to happen, as according to him, this Victoria lily invasion could wiped out paddy fields and destroyed the aquatic ecosystem in Malaysia. Then, I was instructed to ‘remove’ the Victoria lilies from the research facilities. I took a few young plants and planted in my own secret garden. The research facilities technician sprayed weedicides in the pond and therefore killed all the Victoria lilies just about the right time I decided to quit my post at the Institute of Bioscience.
In December 2013, I decided to make a short visit to the Penang Botanical Garden just to see the Victoria lily. I was told that the authority spent more than a million Ringgit for the Victoria lilies to be planted there. If the Head of the Agriculture Department was right then, today Penang island will be flooded with Victoria lilies right from the ponds, to paddy fields and all the drainage system but good Lord, he was wrong and therefore, the pathetic looking Victoria lilies planted in the Penang Botanical Garden look neither dead nor alive.
I’d learned a lesson though, never work with fools. “Any fool can make a rule, and any fool will mind it.” ― Henry D Thoreau