Aquatic Nymphs

Gently floating lily pads on the water and the delicate appearance of the cup-like flowers suddenly emerging from the muddy depths to soar above them can give the impression that romantic water lilies might be difficult to grow. This is not the case at all!

Although the family Nymphaeaceae contains 5 genera and about 70 species of hardy and tropical water lilies, those that we find readily available locally are mostly the vigorous blue water lily species that are indigenous to South Africa, and beautiful North American varieties in an array of beautiful colours, which are quite hardy in temperate and tropical climates. In areas with cold winters, these perennial aquatic plants will go dormant, while they remain evergreen in warmer areas. They are rapid growers that start flowering from early spring and go on to the end of summer.

They have rounded, slightly notched, waxy-coated leaves on long stalks arising from creeping and fleshy underwater stems (rhizomes). Each fragrant, solitary flower has a spiral arrangement of numerous petals and prominent stamens. Basic growth requirements Water lilies like to grow in still water between 30cm and 90cm deep. They do not appreciate spraying fountains nearby or any wind, and require at least five hours of direct sun a day or they will not flower.

Did you know? You do not even need a pond or a garden if you love water lilies. A portable water feature such as a large ceramic pot without drainage holes or a waterproofed wooden barrel on a sunny balcony or patio will work equally well.

Note: If your water lily is kept in a container-type water element, you should take the plant out now and again to clean the water feature to keep the water fresh and oxygenated.

Tips for luxuriant growth

If you bought a potted young water lily at a nursery, you can do the following to make it feel at home in your pond:

  • When placing a new plant in a pond, gently tip the container to add some water and then slowly lower it while still holding it at an angle into the pond
  • Place the pot containing the new plant on bricks or an empty upturned pot so that it is initially only about 10 – 15cm under water – this will ensure faster growth. As soon as new growth appears, the ‘throne’ can be removed so that the pot rests on the bottom of the pond or container. Remember, the plant should eventually be covered by at least 30 – 40cm of water, whether in a pond or container water feature.

If your pond is soil based and you have bought unpotted plants, the lilies can be placed in a bio-degradable material like a hessian bag and anchored with a few rocks to keep them submerged. The bags will soon rot into the mud and release the lilies to grow towards the surface.

Dividing water lilies

  • Water lilies increase rapidly and can be divided every 2 – 3 years in spring. Here are a few tips on how to divide and replant them.
  • Pull out the plant or remove it from the container in which it was planted. Hose off the knot of roots so that you can clearly see where a new shoot has formed on the rhizome (underground root).
  • Use a bread knife to divide the woody rhizome into pieces that each contain a shoot. Remember, the divisions must retain a sturdy piece of the original rhizome and have some roots intact so that they can grow quickly once again
  • Cut all the old leaves from the rhizomes.

Do not forget about… Nymphaea nouchali, our beautiful indigenous water lily that is also known as the frog’s pulpit, with its sky-blue flowers that are only open in the morning.

Potting up water lilies

Before divided water lilies can be planted, a soil mixture has to be prepared (this recipe is suitable for all aquatic plants). Mix together 70% loamy soil, 15% compost and 15% heavy clay soil. You can use old plastic pots with a diameter of about 15 – 20cm or purchase special planting containers from nurseries that sell aquatic plants. Sturdy bags made of layers of shade netting or hessian also work well.

  • Half-fill the pot with the soil mixture and add a slow-release fertiliser tablet or a handful of slow-release fertiliser granules
  • Plant the rhizome at a 45° angle. Fill up the pot with the soil mixture, leaving the new shoot or growing point on the rhizome above the soil
  • Cover the soil’s surface with a layer of gravel, but take care not to cover or hurt the growing point. You can also use a layer of coarse river sand. Both will prevent the soil mixture from being washed away or muddying the water.

Water lilies to go for…

Here are some day-blooming favourites that will add grace to any body of water:

  • ‘Almost Black’ – double maroon to reddish-purple flowers with golden yellow stems.
  • ‘Arc-en-Ciel’ – variegated foliage flecked with pink, white and maroon.
  • ‘Clyde Ikins’ – yellowy flowers with an apricot hue.
  • ‘Fabiola’ – bubble-gum-pink blooms.
  • ‘Joey Tomocik’ – free-flowering lily with deep yellow blooms.
  • ‘Marliacea Carnea’ – nearly white to pale pink with prominent stamens.
  • ‘Mayla’ – highly scented with intense fuchsia-pink flowers and occasionally burgundy pads.
  • ‘Missouri’ – a night bloomer with large white flowers.

To find out more about water lilies and stockists of these plants, contact Aqua Flora SA at info@aquaflora.co.za.

The Gardener