by Matt Gibson
Water Lilies (Nymphaea) are the champions of water gardening. If you have a pond or a small body of water on your property, you will most likely turn to water lilies for their decorative appeal, as well as their invaluable assistance keeping the water clean and aerated, allowing you the luxury of spending less time and energy on cleaning and maintenancing your favorite water feature. If you don’t have a pond that you can use to grow water lilies, don’t give up the dream, you could always repurpose an old washtub, or even learn a few tricks for growing water lilies in containers indoors (though it is a tough art to master).
If you have fish in your water feature, they will welcome water lilies to the neighborhood happily, as the surface-dwelling flowerheads provide a shady respite from the ever-present sun, as well as a nice hiding place to keep them safe from predators. The aquatic flower’s delicate beauty has been immortalized in art and religion throughout human history. Most water lilies are very easy to grow, and provide many garden ponds with fragrant and mesmerizing blossoms from around June to October.
Though the flowers seem to be sprouting directly from the water itself, they are actually only floating on the surface level. Their roots feed the flowerheads above, but travel to the base of the pond or pool in order to establish themselves more securely, coiling deep into the water-logged soil at the base of your water feature.
Lily pads, though often thought to be separate plants from their close-quartered neighbors, are actually the leaves of the water lilies themselves and a beloved landing zone and hangout spot for frogs and toads alike, the addition of which may entice the local pest-eating garden-friendly amphibian crew to make your pond into a permanent dwelling for their slimy family for years to come, providing you with free, all-natural pest control solutions.
The water lily was featured heavily in the paintings of the French Impressionist movement, most notably used by Claude Monet, who once dedicated an entire series to the aquatic flower, which is widely considered to be some of his best work. The water lily has been an important symbol since ancient times, and is still celebrated in the modern world.
Various species of water lilies float serenely on the surface of various bodies of water all across the world, but they were originally native to South Africa, the Northern Hemisphere, and Australia. Incredibly tough and resilient, different varieties of the water lily can thrive in USDA hardiness zones four through twelve.
Varieties of Water Lilies
There are about 50 known varieties of water lilies which are available in a wide array of beautiful colors and different sizes. With a good deal of decorative options, there is a water lily that will be perfectly suited to whatever water feature that you have on your property.
Aside from the many varieties, there are also two distinctly different types of water lilies, which are called Hardy and Tropical:
Hardy – The hardy water lily class, is we-ll suited to Northern climates that freeze during the winter months, as it can survive on the bottom of your pond or water feature (depending on its depth). Over the winter months, the pot holding the water lily root system has to be gently urged to sink to the bottom of the pond. In most cold-climate areas, the bottom of a decent sized pond should be enough to keep it out of dangerous freezing temperatures which would kill the root systems.
If you are afraid that even the bottom of your water feature will not be safe from freezing, you will want to bring the whole container, roots and all, indoors until winter has come and gone and the last threat of frost has passed by. Every lily in the Hardy class are day-bloomers, opening in the morning and closing by mid-afternoon. Dependable and easy to plant, hardy water lilies are the best choice for beginning gardeners.
Tropical – Tropical water lilies are not frost resistant in the slightest and will die if they are left to float in the icy bath of a winter pond. Tropical water lilies should be brought indoors during the winter months in all but the warmest areas of the world. Some gardeners choose to look at the tropical water lilies as if they were annuals, repurchasing and replanting them each year in the spring. If you would prefer to save a little money and replant the same tropical water lilies every year, just pull them out of your water feature before winter comes, clean them off well, and store them through the cold season in a bucket filled with moist sand, placed into a cool, dark room, such as a basement.
There are many other small advantages that tropical water lilies have which hardy water lilies are denied. Tropical lilies have bigger flowers, longer and stronger tree stems and branches to support the flower’s weight. The tropical water lily class also boasts bigger lily pads and longer stalks, which are equipped to better support the increased flower size. Tropical lilies have two different subcategories, which are day-bloomers, and night bloomers. White water lilies are the perfect choice for night blooming varieties, as white can stand out with only the light of the moon to guide your gaze to them.
Is selecting the right flower a challenging process for you? Are there simply far too many colors and sizes to sort through to find the one that was meant to live in your pond? Well, we have come through in the clutch and simplified the whole process for you before you even thought to ask us to do it. Here is a short list of some of our favorite varieties of water lilies so that you have a more vibrant and less exhaustive selection from which to choose from:
The toughest decision in making this list is the choice between two peach-colored varieties called, “Carolina Sunset,” and, “Peach Glow,” so after a short deliberation, both varieties earned a place on the list. That doesn’t mean that you should pick them both as the floral decorative highlights of your water feature, however, as they are very similar looking lilies. The Carolina sunset has a darker shade of peach and a warm yellow center. The Peach glow is a creamy shade of peach, with a very similar yellow interior. If you love peach flowers, pick between these two glorious varieties.
The “Afterglow,” cultivar packs a powerful fragrant punch, but its three-color blend that occurs on each petal, as well as the flowerhead itself, is a glorious sight, and the reason why this species makes the final cut. With each petal slowly fading from red to orange to yellow, the Afterglow bloom is as magnificent as the sunset itself.
With variegated lily pad foliage, pure white flower petals, and a vibrant yellow center, the “Arc en Ciel,” is a subtle but elegant species that can easily steal the show away from more exotic looking flowers.
The “Blue Beauty,” water lily variety earned a spot on our short list of favorites for two reasons. First, because of its massive size, known for pumping out loads of brightly colored blooms that are nearly a foot in diameter. Secondly, the blooms come out in whatever color they seem to prefer, ranging from a bright pinkish-magenta to a muted lilac cream, to a deep dark blue. As a gardener and a private pond (or other water feature) flower curator, you never know what you are going to get until the bloom begins to open up for the big reveal.
“Red Cup,” is the one and only night-blooming water lily to make our list. It was almost cut due to it’s relatively dark red shade and the obvious choice, a white-colored flower (honorable mention is hereby awarded to the white-petaled, yellow-centered night-bloomer, Mrs. George H Pring, who needs only a glimmer off a moonbeam to draw an evening eye). However, on further consideration, taking into account this variety’s charming apple-spice fragrance which lingers throughout the evening and early morning hours, there was no competition that could push it off the list without heated debates and tireless campaigning. However, with a red hue as vibrant as this flower displays, we do recommend a little night lighting to bring its glorious color to the spotlight of your evening time garden getaway.
The “Rembrandt,” is on the final list due to its many unique qualities which separate it from the other selections. It is a compact pick, which makes it well suited to container water gardens and especially small water features. It’s loved for its inviting scent and bold red petals, but the color transitions that move outward from the flower’s center, are what nudged it over the finish line. The color starts with a bright yellow center, which gives way suddenly to deep red, almost crimson petals, which slowly become a chalky white row of border petals to frame the whole masterpiece. I suppose its legendary name is aptly given.
Last on our list, but certainly not least, is the beautiful “Colorado,” water lily. It’s red-mottled lily pad backdrop is perfectly paired with its lush, fragrant orange to salmon flowerheads. If you are only going to pick one of the lilies on the list, this is a strong choice for any size pond or water feature.
Growing Conditions for Water Lilies
Using containers within your pond, pool, or water feature may seem like an unneeded step that can just be skipped, but it really is the most efficient way to manage your water lily collection, keeping them from spreading out and suffocating the water source, as well as making your job easier when it comes time to give your water lilies a bit of care and attention.
When cultivating water lilies, use a large plastic pot with several holes punched into the sides and bottom. Fill it to within 3 inches of the top with silt, loam, or clay, or a mixture of two or three of the aforementioned soil bases, then gently mix in a small amount of slow release fertilizer labeled specifically for use with aquatic soil.
WARNING TO FISH OWNERS!! If you have fish in your pond or water feature, do not add any organic material to the container or pool, as it will kill your fish and promote some foul bacteria and disease growth. If you have fish in the pond, use heavy clay soil and use big, fist sized rocks to top off the container instead of pea stone.
How to Plant Water Lilies
Plant the rhizome close to one side of the pot at a 45-degree tilt with the eye of the rhizome facing upwards. Cover the soil with a layer of pea stone, keeping the gravel top away from the top of the rhizome if possible. The gravel keeps the soil from dissolving into the water of your pond. The container can be stored on the bottom floor of the water feature, or can be supported and adjusted to the depth recommended for your selected variety’s specifications.
How To Propagate Water Lilies
The best method to use when propagating water lilies is division.
Care of Water Lilies
Once planted and situated, division is the only thing you have to do to provide care for your water lilies, and they only need it done on very rare occasions to thrive. Divide your water lilies every three to four years to rejuvenate them and keep them from spreading out into unwanted areas. Dividing your lilies doubles your inventory, (which is simply the best way to propagate water lilies) leaving extra lily flowers, which will make excellent gifts for folks with water features on their property.
Want to learn more about growing water lilies?
Better Homes & Gardens covers How to Grow Water Lilies
Better Homes & Gardens covers Water Lilies for Your Garden
Gardening Know How covers Growing Water Lilies
Hunker covers Facts on Water Lilies