Review: The Flower of Empire by Tatiana Holway

picture for review

Due for release on April 9th 2013


In 1837, while charting the Amazonian country of Guiana for Great Britain, German naturalist Robert Schomburgk discovered an astounding “vegetable wonder”–a huge water lily whose leaves were five or six feet across and whose flowers were dazzlingly white. In England, a horticultural nation with a mania for gardens and flowers, news of the discovery sparked a race to bring a live specimen back, and to bring it to bloom. In this extraordinary plant, named Victoria regia for the newly crowned queen, the flower-obsessed British had found their beau ideal.
In The Flower of Empire, Tatiana Holway tells the story of this magnificent lily, revealing how it touched nearly every aspect of Victorian life, art, and culture. Holway’s colorful narrative captures the sensation stirred by Victoria regia in England, particularly the intense race among prominent Britons to be the first to coax the flower to bloom. We meet the great botanists of the age, from the legendary Sir Joseph Banks, to Sir William Jackson Hooker, director of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, to the extravagant flower collector the Duke of Devonshire. Perhaps most important was the Duke’s remarkable gardener, Joseph Paxton, who rose from garden boy to knight, and whose design of a series of ever-more astonishing glass-houses–one, the Big Stove, had a footprint the size of Grand Central Station–culminated in his design of the architectural wonder of the age, the Crystal Palace. Fittingly, Paxton based his design on a glass-house he had recently built to house Victoria regia. Indeed, the natural ribbing of the lily’s leaf inspired the pattern of girders supporting the massive iron-and-glass building.
From alligator-laden jungle ponds to the heights of Victorian society, The Flower of Empire unfolds the marvelous odyssey of this wonder of nature in a revealing work of cultural history.


The Flower of the Empire is about the discovery of the water lily by Robert Schomburgk and its connection to great events within the Victorian/Edwardian period, including the building of the Crystal Palace.  This novel captures the feeling scientific wonder and exploration of the period and in a chatty, easy to read style introduces to the main characters of the drama. It is hard to imagine a flower at the centre of a drama and yet this fast paced book introduces you to powerful and brilliant men of the period, who were all tied together by their fascination and drive to bring the water lily to England and to successfully get it to thrive in England.

A beautiful garden was expected by the elite of the period and the New World was a botanist’s paradise, with many different types of flowers which had not yet been grown on British soil. Wealthy men funded expeditions to bring back flowers that would show their prestige to those who walked through their gardens. I had heard of Paxton before, through his involvement in the Great Expedition but the rest of the characters in this novel were new to me and it was interesting to hear their back stories and follow their triumphs and failures through the book. I would recommend this book for anyone with an interest in the Edwardian period and the history of botany. It is written in an approachable style and enraptures everything exciting about the period.

I give it 4 out of 5 water lilies.

buy from: B & N | Amazon | Powell’s | Indiebound


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4 replies on “Review: The Flower of Empire by Tatiana Holway”
  1. says: Lisa Palone

    Hey there – there is an ad that crops into your review. I can’t read about 4 lines of it. I thought it was my iPad’s fault this morning. But now I’m at work and it’s happening on my work computer too.

  2. says: A_Writer_of_History

    What a novel concept for a story. Reminds me of reading Remarkable Creatures by Tracey Chevalier.

  3. says: Rachel Pritchard

    Thanks Lisa for letting me know. It looks fine on my end but I will get in touch with Evangeline and let her know.

    I was thinking the same thing as well A_Writer_of_History. The story has the makings of a great novel or even a movie.

  4. says: Helenw

    In a time of exploration, colonisation, industrial growth and hard science, it is amazing that Victorians were passionate about botany. Yet we know they were because of the collectors, the architects and the publishers.

    Thank you…I will look for the book in this botany-minded city.

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