Waterlilies are fascinating pond plants for their delicate beauty and the joy they bring to the water garden. But did you know this treasured flower also carries spiritual history and significance? Often called the jewels of the water garden, waterlilies hold special meaning in Buddhism and Hinduism. In both of these religions, waterlilies symbolize resurrection because the flowers close at night and reopen in the morning. This act is symbolic of spiritual rebirth. Buddhists also feel that the waterlily represents enlightenment because the beautiful flowers rise from the mud.
But that’s not the only historic or spiritual reference to the beautiful blooms. The root word for waterlily is Nymphaea, a Greek word that can be translated as nymph, or a feminine soul that lives in nature. Ancient Egypt prized waterlilies and believed they warded off dangerous spirits. In Christianity, the interlocking petals of the waterlily represent unity and life energy.
In addition to its spiritual symbolism, waterlilies are wonderful flowers that are a favorite plant in ponds and lakes around the world. Waterlilies are available in both hardy and tropical types. Hardy waterlilies are perennials that can survive winter in gardening zones as low as 4 or 5. Tropical waterlilies will only survive year-round in warm and tropical zones. Most waterlilies bloom during the day; however, there are a few night-blooming tropical waterlilies that are truly magnificent.
Hardy waterlilies are mildly fragrant, day-blooming plants characterized by floating flowers and leaves. You’ll find them in shades of red, pink, yellow, peach, white, and changeable. A changeable waterlily generally starts out yellow, and over the next few days of blooming, slowly changes to a peach or light rose color, such as the Sioux waterlily. The vast majority of waterlilies in North America are hardy.
Choosing the Right Waterlily
First, decide if you want a small, medium, or large plant. This not only refers to the size of leaves and flowers but also to the pond surface area taken up by a mature plant. For example, if you desire a red waterlily that’s medium in size, be sure the one you choose will do well in your climate. This is a factor with many deep red lilies such as ‘Almost Black’ which can “burn” in extreme southern summers and even turn black. The probable cause for this is its wild, red European ancestor that is not acclimated to southern heat. Safe red choices include ‘Laydekeri Fulgens,’ ‘Sultan,’ or ‘Perry’s Baby Red.’
These gorgeous lilies are referred to as “tropicals” because they cannot survive northern winter weather. They’re basically the annuals in a northern water garden and will grace it with their beauty all summer and into the early fall season. In Phoenix, they may or may not survive the winter. If the water temperature drops below 40 degrees, this is usually fatal. Tropical waterlilies are desirably unique in several ways.
These are just some of the reasons why water gardeners opt for tropical waterlilies in their ponds. Choose a color and whether you want a day or night-blooming flower. Next year, you can enjoy a different variety.
Keep in mind that night-bloomers tend to run considerably larger than their day-blooming counterparts, are rarely fragrant, and have limited colors from which to choose. Their main advantage is their flowering schedule which is perfect for people who work 9 to 5. Consider choosing both a day and night-blooming waterlily to keep constant color in your pond.
Low Maintenance Charmers
Maintenance of waterlilies – hardy or tropical – is minimal if you keep a few things in mind. First, waterlilies are voracious eaters and need plenty of fertilizer throughout the season if you want them to look their best. Choose fertilizer specific to pond plants and follow the package instructions. Don’t over-fertilize or you will end up with water quality issues. Once you have an established ecosystem, the fish waste generated should be enough to keep your waterlilies thriving, as long as the lilies are planted in the substrate of the pond and not contained in pots -- we haven't been able to figure out a way to train a koi to back up to a pot to poo.
Next, waterlilies do not like moving water or water from a fountain or waterfall splashing on their leaves. Keep them at a slight distance from the waterfall and they should be fine. Also, protect their roots from your finned friends by placing 3-5” river rocks on top of the soil to deter the fish from rooting around at its base. Be sure to keep your koi properly fed so they don’t go looking for a snack from your lily.
Finally, trim back dying leaves and faded blooms. Decaying leaves can add unnecessary nutrients to your pond water. By plucking faded blooms, the plant will put all its energy into new blooms instead of wasting energy on spent flowers.
New waterlilies continue to be hybridized so keep your eyes open for new varieties that you might want to add to your water garden. The International Waterlily and Water Gardening Society holds an annual waterlily contest each year to encourage more research and experimentation with these stunning plants. Your waterlily options are almost endless.
A terrific local resource for aquatic plants of all kinds is Arizona Water Garden Oasis in Tolleson, Arizona. Victoria Helton will hook you up!
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