When Paignton Zoo head gardener Catherine Mortimer set out to plant a giant water lily she found herself in deep water– waist deep!
Paignton Zoo’s Crocodile Swamp exhibit is home to Nile, Cuban and saltwater crocodiles, as well as a range of large snakes and fish. There are five interconnected pools in Crocodile Swamp – only one of them doesn’t contain crocodiles.
Every year Catherine plants a giant water lily in this pool – under the interested gaze of the lurking crocs. She said: “This is a magnificent plant, it’s truly iconic. The planting is perfectly safe, but when you are in the water and the crocs are eyeing you from just behind the mesh, it does make your heart beat faster!”
The giant water lily Victoria cruziana is an annual from the upper reaches of the Amazon. It has leaves 2 metres (6 feet) in diameter with razor-sharp teeth underneath. The flowers can be up to 30 centimetres across.
Pool 3 is 1.5 metres deep, has a surface area of 40 square metres and contains about 60,000 litres. The temperature is a pleasant 25 Celsius. The water system is drained down part way to make it easier – the water goes out into a holding tank and is pumped back later. But it still means working in water waist deep.
Catherine, who grew this year’s plant from seed, said: “The young plant goes into a large pot set permanently into the bottom of the pool and filled with sterilised loam. One it gets going it is very vigorous – it will be producing leaves a metre across within a month.
“It is a very hungry plant – we feed it every two weeks. We can’t drain the water out each time, so we have to swim. We make up grapefruit-sized balls of soil and fertiliser – we give it five at a time when the plant is full size. It only dies back in October or November – it relies on day length.”