Earliest Sanskrit writings record that Egyptians worshipped these blooms as the sacred flower of creation. Ancient Eastern religions consider this flower to represent the centre of the universe and a symbol of life, spirituality and a focus for meditation, Peaceful repose and tranquillity, this is the divine and sacred - the Water Lily.
Nymphaea caerulea, the Egyptian Lotus, is indeed sacred and spiritual in appearance. It is one of the true, heavenly blue forms of the Water Lily with elegant blooms on strong stems rising gracefully above circular leaf pads and opening as spectacular star-shaped blooms often with a lovely perfume.
A similar tropical species, Nymphaea nouchali syn. Stellata or ‘Shapla’, the Star Lotus, is also a day bloomer with flowers in lovely shades of red, blue, pink through Orchid purple, occasionally salmon and lighter shadings down to brilliant white. The beautiful white form is the national flower of Sri Lanka; and state flower of Andhra Pradeh province in India. Its blue form is the national flower of Sri Lanka. The beloved Water Lily is also the birth flower of July.
Medieval magicians considered the flowers to be feminine, ruled by the moon and water. Anyone breathing their perfume received divine protection. Seeds, pods or any part of the plant carried or worn ensured blessings and good luck.
The botanical name they carry today, Nymphaea or Nymphea (nim-fee’-a), dates back to the Greek and Roman name for the nature goddess, Nympha, ruler of water nymphs. Impressionist painter Monet so loved these “sparkling fairies of the water” that he immortalised them in many paintings. In the Victorian language of flowers they meant “youthful purity of heart”.
Today the showy, often very fragrant blooms of hybrid Water Lily and Egyptian Lotus adorn lakes, ponds and still, warm waters throughout the tropical and temperate world. Some species open at night but most sparkle only in bright sunlight in shades of red, pink, yellow, white and tropical shades of blue, mauve and purple.
There are two distinctive types: hardy and tropical. They comprise 8 genera, at least 70 species and hundreds of hybrids. 35 species are mostly hardy temperate natives of the Northern Hemisphere. The rest are mainly tropical; the largest genus N. Victoria includes the famous giant Victorian Water Lily of South America with dramatic double pink and white blooms and massive round pad leaves that curve sharply upward at their edges. These are often 6.8-10ft/2-3m across and are used as temporary boats by young children!
The Water Lily group classified as ‘hardy’ are native to temperate climates around the world. These are very hardy to severe freezing and are found throughout much of the temperate world where they survive in a dormant state below the ice in ponds and shallow lakes. They can survive limited drought and are commonly seen flowering during the warmer months right on the shore line where there is an enriched muddy bottom that has become exposed during Summer drought.
Often overlooked and unsung advantages to Water Lilies are their leaves. These are flat, glossy, round and succulent. They unfurl from the underground tuber and quickly rise to the surface, still rolled quite tightly and then unroll to create the classic lily pad that floats upon the water. Their dark green colour and succulent structure attracts and disperses heat and warmth to the waters below.
Plus they create a living roof over the water’s surface which is highly protective for fish and other water creatures that often congregate beneath the warming waters they create. Here they can bask and feed off of water-born insects. The fish defecations sink to the bottom where they act as highly nutritious manure that feeds the advancing Water Lilies. In return the Water Lily pads offer protection and sanctuary to the fish that might otherwise be eaten by Herons, Kingfishers and other predatory Birds or wildlife.
Hardy Water Lilies produce large egg-shaped buds, lightly pointed at their opening tip. Solitary flowers are produced on long, cord-like stalks enclosed in green sepals which protect the bloom when closed. These unfurl during the day into exquisite blooms, mostly fully double in classic star-shaped white, cream, butter yellow upwards to very bright yellow, gold, orange, every shade of pink through pastel blue and light purple shadings.
The many petals open as a closely packed spiral on the same level giving a cup-like appearance of softly pointed petals. In hardy temperate species rounded blooms open flat on the water or slightly above if crowded. There are delightful miniatures up to dramatic double blooms larger than a Grapefruit. Flowers classical rise up from underwater and rest upon the lily pad leaves where they sit most gracefully and open quickly into glorious bloom. Most have a very pleasing perfume. Then just as quickly, they recede below the surface and are replaced by the next bloom. Flowering can occur throughout the warmer months.
The other group are ‘tender tropicals’ which are natives to many widely flung tropical climates. Their blooms are similar but very exotic star-shaped blossoms with pointed petals held high above the water. These come in many exquisite vivid blue and purple shades, pristine white; every shade of pink into cerise and red; occasionally salmon into orange. Most have a delicate fragrance. All make wonderful cut flowers.
Water Lilies and Egyptian Lotus bloom throughout warm weather: the warmer the better for flowering, especially for the tropical species. The tropical species start later than the temperate forms. Even the tropical sorts are sometimes hardy to -15 C/5F degrees when left dormant in a shallow lake or farm pond. But when grown in large tubs that assume air temperature, tropical varieties will need winter lifting or shifting to warmer quarters when grown outside the subtropics.
All Water Lilies demand full sun and seldom bloom in partial shade. They may produce leaves in less than full sunlight, but blooming will be scant if at all in lower light. Their tuberous roots produce ‘eye’ shoots from where the leaves and buds unfurl in a somewhat similar fashion to the emerging fiddleheads of a Fern, but all this happens unseen underwater. Being fleshy and succulent, their tissues are sensitive to direct contact to cold, dry and heat and can be damaged by excessive water movement. Thus Water Lilies are best grown in shallow, nearly still water with just enough circulation to keep the water from becoming stagnant.
The thick, fleshy, spreading underwater roots producing the rounded leaves and flowers can be planted, shifted or divided while dormant from Winter through Spring. Late Winter and Early Spring are best because the tuberous roots are just emerging from dormancy so will quickly produce new roots and shoots to get them established. To help them along, the gross-feeding roots can be anchored into heavy loam with a large stone or planted in bags or wire baskets in a mix of compost and manure. Soon their roots will spread out and anchor securely to the bottom. One must be cautious where they are to be established for many species of Water Lilies soon creep and spread with a voracity that makes them difficult to eradicate.
Miniature species will flower happily in a large bucket with only 10cm/4inches of water. These delicate species are ideally suited to small ponds in the (sub) urban landscape garden. Most are quite free-flowering and most rewarding additions to almost any water feature provided they have some room to spread out and bright, full sunshine. Give larger hardy and tropical species at least 30-50cm/12-20inches of water depth and plenty of room to spread. These are best suited to the broader landscape and country garden. In a lake or pond they will grow from near the bank downward to a depth of 1m/3.34ft.and sometimes deeper, especially with the larger Lotus, Nelumbo.
Nelumbo, the Sacred Lotus, was once considered to be a member of the Nymphaeaceae Family. There are only two species native to China and India. It is the national flower of Egypt, India and Vietnam. Leaves are similarly round but uprightly, cup-shaped, much larger and held high above the water on robust stems that can reach 2m/6.68ft high. Impressively large flowers can grow almost as tall as their leaves on long, sturdy stems. Sacred Lotus blossoms are much like traditional Water Lilies in arrangement but petals are rounded at the tip and cup-shaped closely resembling blooms of Magnolia and sweetly scented.
These beautiful flowers are followed by dramatic round and flat-topped, funnel-shaped pods containing dark brown, hard, large, round seeds. Seeds are filled with oil, protein and starch and are eaten after popping, parching or grinding into flower. Young leaves and stems are also boiled and eaten, especially in Asian cultures. In a similar fashion the hardy temperate white Water Lily, Nymphaea odorata syn. Tuberose, native to Eastern North America, also was eaten by American Indians who regularly gathered their tubers that were eaten much like Potatoes.
In recent years, the Sacred Lotus has been reclassified as a distinctly different plant in its own Family named Nelumbonaceae. At the present time, DNA research suggests that it is a distinctive member of an ancient plant Family whose closest living relatives are all land plants of the Proteaceae (Protea) and Platanaceae (Plane Tree) Families!
Whatever they are called or how they are classified: Egyptian Lotus, Sacred Lotus, Star Flower, Water Lilies or many other names, Humankind has an ancient love affair with these divine and nearly sacred flowers. Not every garden has a place for these specialty water plants. But those that do, dare not overlook them for the unforgettable beauty, joy and pleasure they bring to the garden and broader landscape.
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