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Water Lilies: The Perfect Addition to any Garden

Updated on November 6, 2016

How would it feel to come into this world and discover that your parents had come and gone nearly 2,000 years ago? Weird? Bad? Would you feel like you'd been time-warped into some bizarre science fiction movie? Not for Water lilies!

Water lily seeds have been found to be growable for up to this length of time. No, that's not a typo, 2,000 years!! If they could tell you what they've seen in their time it would include a wide range of uses such as ancient Egyptian art and tomb decor, as the national flower of Bangladesh, as the birth flower of July and as a symbol of rebirth associated with the Greek goddess of love, Aphrodite. The water lily was employed artistically, medicinally, theologically, nutritionally and spiritually throughout history in Minoan, Chinese, Indian, Native American and Mayan cultures. Its botanical name, Nymphaeaceae, derives from the Greek and Roman word for "nature goddess." In its current American cultural use, the goddesses are enshrined in our own backyard water gardens where they perform the very useful functions of providing a covering for fish, limiting algae production and serving as a breeding grounds for the dragonflies which help keep the mosquito population in check.

Though they are somewhat slow to populate, in the right climate water lilies will proliferate in water up to six feet deep and with the spread of their lily pads can eventually create an underwater area that suffers from stagnation and oxygen deprivation. This spread can also detract from the usability of the shoreline and as such, planting water lilies in unrestricted bodies of water such as lakes is not recommended.

There are two types of water lily, hardy and annual, or as the case may be in some parts of the world, perennial and annual. The color range of the hardy water lilies tends to be limited to the warm side of the spectrum -- reds, oranges, yellows and hot pinks -- while the tropicals have a greater range of color including blues and are more aromatic. The blooms of water lilies last for three to four days each, or three to four nights for some of the night-blooming tropicals, however for that duration, the bloom will open and close depending on the time of day. Hardy water lilies in bloom, for example, will close their blooms when the sun sets then awaken the next morning just like the rest of us. A bit more ethereal, the night bloomers reverse this cycle. While on the surface, a water lily appears to be floating freely, it is actually rooted in the soil beneath. Depths of 18 inches to 6 feet will accommodate most water lilies. They reproduce both by the production of seeds as well as by the spread of rhizomes, a tuberous underground root system, and can fill a 15-foot area in about five years. Under the soil, the rhizomes spread and give rise to additional lily pads and blooms above the surface. Rhizomes are difficult to remove and must be cleanly cut away with a knife or scissors rather than pulled. Pulling rhizomatous plants as you would weeds in the garden will only lead to the creation of many new pieces that will drift and regenerate, making the original problem worse by orders of magnitude. Water lilies also reproduce by seed and depend on insects to deliver pollens and on birds and fish to distribute their seeds. Some water lilies, however, have evolved their own unusual twist to the familiar method. Rather than having an insect deliver pollen from flower to flower by creating pollen granules that stick to the bug's feet, some water lilies fill with fluid inside and then, by design, knock an investigating pollen-covered insect into the fluid for a little rinse-off before freeing the bug to go on with it's day. After a couple of days, the pollination factory closes for business and the water lily coils it's stem to pull the flower underwater so the seeds can develop.

Growing these beautiful plants in your own backyard pond is not so difficult at all, though beginners might want to start with the hardy water lilies while deciding if you enjoy it enough to put the time, effort and money into the indoor over-wintering needs of the tropicals. Hardy water lilies can be planted in an area that gets at least four to six hours of sun daily and when the average temperature is above 65 degrees. They will begin blooming long about April. You will want to be sure that the sides of the pond where you plant them are relatively steep, as a gradually sloping pond will expose the plants in the shallows to too many temperature extremes. Purchase your plants from a gardening center then plant it in about one cubic foot of aquatic topsoil in a lattice pot (a pot with holes in the sides). Once planted, cover the top of the pot with about a half -inch of pea gravel. Be certain that you do not use any form of limestone rock in your pond as the lime will leach and damage your plants and fish. Now sink your pot into the water at a level such that the flowers and leaves are floating on top. For some ponds, this will mean putting the pot on the bottom, for others, you will need a shelf. If your pond wasn't shelved when it was built, a crate or plastic bucket will work just fine. Now the hard part is done and there's no daily watering either! To maintain your plants, fertilize with aquatic fertilizer according to package directions during the blooming season only. If there are trees near your water garden, cover it with a net in the fall to limit the number of leaves that fall into the pond as their decomposition decreases oxygen, increases nitrogen and is harmful to the fish and plants you have living there.

Cut water lilies make wonderful centerpieces for your table. To enjoy them longer indoors, put a spot of wax inside the opened bloom to keep it from it's cyclical closing.


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