Floating Flora

Adorning Ponds and Pools with Water Lilies

by Virginia Hayes

Water lilies are among the oldest flowering plants. Fossil leaves and pollen that can be attributed to this group have been found in deposits from the early Cretaceous Period, 100 to 125 million years before the present. A recent find is a flower quite similar to a modern water lily in the genus Victoria (the giant Amazon water lily) that was deposited around 90 million years ago. There is even a leaf remarkably similar to another contemporary genus that appears to have been stuck to the foot of a dinosaur walking the earth 221 million years ago. Recent DNA studies have placed the water lilies among the oldest living flowering plants.

Water lilies grow in shallow pools and at the edges of lakes and slow-moving rivers throughout the world. Just as they are today, species water lilies in the genus Nymphaea were prized by ancient gardeners. Egyptian kings are depicted wearing the blossoms on their head and the flowers were included in their burial tributes. Ethnobotanists have even decided that steeping water lily flowers in wine produced a mild narcotic that brought the court pleasure.

The largest group of water lilies in cultivation is in the genus Nymphaea (the name given to the flower that rose from a nymph who died of unrequited love for the Greek god Hercules). They can be subdivided into the hardy and tropical types. Worldwide there are about 50 species. Hundreds of cultivars have been created by horticulturists. In the coastal areas of Southern California, hardy water lilies begin their spring growth in February and the first blossoms appear in early March. Blooming continues through the spring, summer, and early autumn. In October, when the nights begin to cool, hardy water lilies will stop blooming and put out smaller leaves, usually retreating to a rosette of inch-sized leaves just above the water lily crown. The dormant plants are left in place in the ponds through the winter months.

Hardy water lily species and hybrids come in most of the colors of the rainbow, although they tend toward the pastel instead of vibrant. White, yellow, pink, and red flowers can be found in sizes and shapes from the tiny and starry to the robust and double-flowered. Both flowers and leaves float right on the surface of the water.

Tropical water lilies will not begin to grow until late May or early June, when the night water temperature nears 70 degrees. They grow very rapidly, blooming in the first month, increasing in size and number of blooms until October or given a mild autumn, until Christmas. Then they usually become totally dormant and no leaves are seen until the following spring. Many varieties of tropicals will not survive even our mild winters. They can be held in heated tanks through the winter or treated as annuals.

While hardy water lilies offer subtle color shades, tropicals are truly electric. In addition to the yellows, pinks, and reds, there are species with blue flowers. Many hybrids have been developed to show off these spectacular colors. Most tropicals have a regular daytime bloom period just as the hardies do, but there is another group whose blooms open only as the sun is setting and remain open all night, closing about mid-morning. Tropical water lily flowers are held on tall stalks above the surface of the water and are very fragrant.

A few local nurseries sell a limited number of water lilies, both tropical and hardy. Many more cultivars are available through mail and online catalogs. If you don’t have a pond, don’t despair, water lilies will happily grow in containers that hold water. Plant directly into soil in the bottom of the pot or submerge their planting pots for ease of maintenance when repotting time comes around. If you purchase your water lily already potted up, it will have a suitable growing medium. If you obtain your plant as a bare root tuber, plant it in regular garden soil, not a commercial mix containing organic components. These organic materials will break down slowly in the anaerobic conditions underwater, creating that rotten egg smell. Normally not toxic, this situation is simply odiferous. Most water lilies appreciate a steady supply of a balanced fertilizer. When planting, mix a handful in with the soil in the bottom half of the container (this will reduce the amount that leaches out into the pond to feed unsightly algae). During the growing season, fertilizer tabs or stakes can be easily inserted into the pot to keep plants vigorous. All that is left to do is pinch off dead leaves and flowers as they appear and you will be enjoying one of nature’s ancient flowers all summer long.

Virginia Hayes, curator of Ganna Walska Lotusland, will answer your gardening questions. Address them to Gardens, The Independent, 122 W. Figueroa St., S.B., CA 93101. Send email to

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