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

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
The Independent, 122 W. Figueroa St., S.B., CA
93101. Send email to


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