The Incredible Night Life of One of the World’s Strangest Flowering Plants

While many of us are heading to bed or cueing up another episode of Game of Thrones, the giant Amazonian water lily is preparing itself to do some truly impressive things. The lily, which is the subject of Richard Mabey’s piece in the Lay of the Land section of the May/June 2015 issue of Orion (“Midnight Blooms”), is capable of not only growing at a rate of twenty-five centimeters a day, but of transforming itself from female to male—and from white to pink—overnight.

Says Mabey, who made a mad dash one evening to the Cambridge University tropical houses to watch the lily bloom:

The flowering is an extraordinary process. The basketball-sized bud opens as a white-petaled female, releasing an overpowering aroma of tropical fruit and raising its internal temperature eleven degrees Celsius above the surrounding air. In its natural habitat hordes of scarab beetles are attracted by the scent and warmth. A few hours later, the petals shut tight, trapping the beetles while they pick up pollen. The next evening, the flower opens again as a gorgeous pink male, releasing the beetles to carry on their pollinating cycle.

Think about that the next time you’re hunting for your Netflix password on a Friday night.

Learn more about the lily’s incredible life cycle in the video above, and read about Richard Mabey’s attempt to witness one of its blooms in the Lay of the Land section of Orion. His new book, Efflorescence: The Cabaret of Plants, on this topic and others, will be out in the fall.

Note: The original version of this post mistakenly described the lily’s transformation from male to female. In fact, the flower begins as a female, with white petals, and emerges in the morning as a pink-petaled male. 


  1. Can you clarify the gender of the flower because the video excerpt from the documentary contradicts the colors’ genders, saying that white flower is female, and the pink flower is male.

  2. The video states the white is female and the pink is male, yet the narrative in the article says the opposite. Which is correct? I’m thinking the video is…

  3. Thanks for the clarifying questions, Aireanne and Tanya!

    You are both correct—the flower begins as a female and transforms into a male, with its colors shifting from white to pink. We’ve updated the post.

    Assistant Editor

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