Water Lilies: Captivating and Easy To Grow
Aquatic lilies are some of the most spectacular plants of the world. Their majestic leaves and blooms have been central to cultural and religious symbolism for centuries and have inspired many artists, the most famous of which is Claude Monet.
Among them are the Lotus, Nelumbo nucifera and the water lily Nymphacea which includes both the perennial hardy lilies and the annual tropical ones.
Hardy Water Lilies
The hardy water lily is a perennial aquatic plant which grows from a rhizome much the same way a spring flower grows from a bulb. The thick glossy leaves which float on the water's surface can measure nearly a foot across, each with a slit that gives them a heart-shape appearance.
The leaves form at the ends of thick, ropy stalks as do the individual flower buds. When fully bloomed, the blossoms are pure perfection with golden stamens. They open each morning with the sun, attracting dragonflies, damselflies, and whirligig beetles which help to pollinate them. By late afternoon, the flowers will close up for a night of rest.
Nymphaea odorata ,the American water lily, is the beautiful white fragrant hardy variety that is native to North America. These cold hardy lilies are able to go dormant in all but the harshest climates and regenerate in spring from the energy stored in their rhizomes. Bloom colors range from white to yellow, pink, peach, red, and even lavender. There are many variations in size to suit the smaller container gardens and the larger water features as well as those with variegated leaves and coppery hues.
Tropical Water Lilies
This category includes the showy annuals whose blooms can reach over a foot across. Flowers are borne on tall stems which stand above large glossy leaves with crinkled and serrated edges. Color ranges extend beyond those of the hardy type and feature vibrant blues, magenta,mauve, and purples. Some bloom during the day and others open at night, releasing their scents to moonlight pollinators.
The largest water lily, Victoria amazonica, is from South America and features huge rimmed pads that can grow up to 10 feet in diameter with blooms the size of a cabbage. These fantastic specimens are best left to the botanic gardens!
Their intolerance of cold conditions except in the warmer parts of the world, means their cultivation takes a little more work. They must be removed and stored during winter or replanted from new plants each year. Still, their stunning displays make them worth the extra effort.
The beautiful blue lily, Nymphae caerulea, was revered as a sacred flower by early civilizations. It contains an alkaloid, Aporphine,which has psychoactive properties. In addition to use as a perfume, it can be brewed as a tea to induce dreams, and is also smoked as a social drug much like marijuana. It is illegal in many countries.
In Egyptian mythology, the blue water lily, erroneously called "Blue Lotus," is the symbol for Upper Egypt while the papyrus bloom, Cyperus papyrus, represents Lower Egypt. Intertwined, they represent Egyptian unification.
Nymphaea caerulea, is associated with the god Nefertum who is believed to have risen from the primordial waters of chaos within its perfumed bloom. The opening of its flower at dawn and its disappearance at dusk makes it a symbol of both the sun god, Ra, and rebirth. Nefertum is depicted in Egyptian art with the lotus on his head.
The lotus, Nelumbo nucifera, although related to the water lily, is a different species native to Asia and was introduced to the region by the Romans. The lotus has large, non-glossy leaves with curled edges that stand on stems also. It bears lovely pink blooms which stand quite tall, and unlike the water lily, keeps all seed parts above water until the floating seed pod becomes woody. Similar in its bloom cycle, the lotus holds important symbolism for both the Buddhists and the Hindus. The opening of the flower bud signifies enlightenment, the perfect bloom represents purity, and the cycle of bloom is symbolic of resurrection and rebirth. The lotus motif is often seen in murals, in architecture, and among items in the tombs of royalty.
Value in Nature
Water lilies serve many purposes beyond pleasing the eye.Frogs and water turtles find protection from predators among the masses of pads and stems and are sometimes found basking atop the leaves. If one looks carefully, he may spot the patterned flanks of koi or the quick movement of a water snake in search for food
Besides providing a beautiful display and shelter, lily pads block sunlight from the pond depths preventing algae bloom. This naturally protects fish from a lack of oxygen. Leaves also serve to convert the ammonia from fish waste into beneficial nutrients for the plants. In the fall as the leaves decompose, the detritus that results from the organic breakdown becomes a significant food source for aquatic invertebrates. This, in turn, provides sustenance for the amphibians, fish, waterfowl, and small mammals higher up in the food chain.
Water lilies which are at the peak of display during the summer months begin to yellow and decline in September and October as they prepare for dormancy. Invasive by nature, water lilies are best submerged within containers to prevent spreading. It's always a good idea to check the invasive plant list for the state in which you live and take note of any warnings or restrictions.
How To Plant Hardy Water Lilies
Water lilies are commonly purchased at the nursery or an aquatic garden center in late spring and are easy to grow.
Hardy water lilies can be enjoyed in both containers and ponds. They can also be grown indoors with plenty of sunlight and an average temperature of 70 degrees.
Water lilies should be individually planted in a 10"- 14" diameter submersible pot or fine mesh basket with a depth of at least 10." Fill the pot with topsoil or a special aquatic planting mix. Regular potting soil is too fluffy and not suitable. Avoid any peat moss, perlite, or vermiculite. Place the rhizome at a 45 degree angle, crown up, then cover with coarse horticultural sand of fine gravel. Be careful not to completely bury the crown as this will cause eventual rot. Fertilizer tablets or spikes can easily be pushed into the soil for continuous feeding.
Choose a spot where the water is slow moving or nearly stagnant with a minimum of 6 hours of sun for good bloom. Carefully lower the pots at a slight angle to a depth of 12- 18." This will help release air bubbles. The plants with gradually rise to the surface. If the plants are being grown in a larger container, water can be added after the plant pots are placed. Container gardens should have at least a 15 gallon capacity.
With any aquatic garden, mosquitoes and midges can be a problem. Fish or mosquito dunks will be necessary to control nuisance populations of biting insects.
Blooms last 2 to 4 days and will then fold under the water. New buds should continually replace the spent ones all season until the cold sets in and the leaves yellow. In home gardens, it is important to remove dying leaves and debris before it is allowed to collect and rot on the bottom of the pond. A build up of waste can raise ammonia levels which is harmful to your pond fish.
If the plant leaves look yellow with no bloomsduring the warmer growing season, this is an indication that it's lacking nutrients. Fertilize with a slow release food being careful not to overfeed. Excess fertilizer will promote algae bloom.
When the weather cools, pull the basket from the pond and pinch back the stems as close to the soil as possible then replace in at least 2 feet of water where it will stay during winter. In harsh winter areas, entire plants should be removed and stored in plastic bags with peat moss until re-submerged in spring.
In late spring the rhizomes will begin to leaf out again as the water warms. This would be the time to move plants back to more shallow water. If the plant is growing too vigorously, moving it into deeper water will direct more of the growth into the stem, so repotting can be delayed until the growing season is finished.
Water lilies are called "Queens of the Garden", and it's hard to imagine the serenity of a water garden without their bejeweled beauty. Just thinking of them shining in the sun brings a sense of peace.They are a flower that is both easy to love and simple to grow.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2013 Catherine Tally