One of the oldest and most revered plant types in the world, water lilies have been around for 130 million years, that we know of.
It has formed an integral part of many cultures over the years. For example, the Ancient Egyptians revered the blue water lily, as it was believed that the sun god Nefertem emerged from one of the blue blooms, and he featured as part of several creation myths.
Water lilies are prolific, and will thrive in countries they’re not native to. They grow easily, and provide a wealth of color and architectural beauty to any water surface, whether that’s in a home pond, or in freshwater pools.
Read on to find out more about the water lily, which has captivated people’s imaginations for centuries.
Description and Characteristics
Water Lily Families
The name water lily refers to three different plant genera or plant families, Nymphaeaceae, Cambobaceae, and Hydatellaceae.
When people refer to water lilies, they usually mean plants which fall under the Nymphaeaceae family. This is the genus that has the most subspecies, and it’s the one this article is focused on.
The subspecies of Nymphaeaceae are Barclaya, Euryale, Nuphar, Nymphaea, Ondinea, and Victoria.
Water Lily Flowers
All water lilies produce captivating flowers, though they are short-lived, and usually only last a maximum of four days.
They do have a strong scent, and add color to the surface of any pond, lake, or other source of water.
They are also beneficial to wildlife. They provide shade and hiding places for fish to escape from watchful predators, and give amphibians somewhere to rest on the water. They also attract pollinators.
Water Lily Flower Colors
Water lilies produce a range of colored flowers, depending on the species. Flowers can be black, blue, pink, white, red, and purple.
The Leaves of a Water Lily
Leaves of a water lily are referred to as lily pads, because of their wide, mostly flat shape. The berries which the plant produces are edible, and the seeds inside are highly prized.
Cultivation and Care
One of the recognizable traits of the water lily is how prolific it grows. Once established, a water lily can quickly take over the surface of the water.
If they’re packed too tightly, while this will prevent algae from growing, they can eventually starve the water of oxygen, which will make fish and the other plants suffer.
The way of telling if you need to thin out your water lilies is to check if there are any buds that can’t rise to the surface, and rot in the water.
Lily pads are also vulnerable to pests which feed on new and existing leaves, damaging the plants. Most of these you can just pick off the plant with your hands – though you may have to get creative in order to reach them!
How Water Lilies Reproduce
Water lilies propagate in two different ways, either by vegetative reproduction, or by producing seeds, and both methods lead to a lot of new water lilies!
Water Lilies’ Vegetative Reproduction
This method doesn’t need any help from pollinators.
Vegetative reproduction is a term that means the plant produces its own runners, and new plants will grow from these, which make them genetic clones of the parent plant.
You can remove these offshoots, and plant them elsewhere where you’d like water lilies to grow.
These clones are sometimes called daughter plants.
Water Lilies Seed Production
Water lily flowers are not self-pollinating. They need pollinators to help them reproduce, although the flower has both the male and female parts needed.
On the first day of a water lily flowering, it produces a fragrant liquid that covers the stigma in the middle of the flower.
This attracts insects like a magnet, and pollen collected on their bodies washes off into the liquid. It then enters the stigma and fertilizes the lily.
The lily stem pulls the flower underwater, and from the flower head, a spongy berry containing up to 2000 seeds will grow.
Eventually, the seeds will be released into the water, and float to the bottom, where they’ll sprout and grow towards the surface as new water lilies.
Common Varieties of Water Lilies
Water lilies come in two subtypes: hardy water lilies, or tropical water lilies.
Tropical water lilies are annuals, and only bloom during the night.
Hardy water lilies are perennials, and will come back year after year. They also flower during the day.
For a truly stunning display, plant both types into your pond or aquarium. You’ll be able to enjoy the captivating blooms both day and night, and enjoy their heady fragrance.
All water lilies thrive in warm weather, don’t require much care, and love water. They vary in shape, color, and size, but the basic maintenance you’ll need to do is the same.
Below is a list of some varieties available.
A perennial lily with eye-catching blooms which start off pink, changing to orange, and then yellow as the flowers mature.
These flowers reach as big as 12 inches in diameter, adding a tropical display to your pond.
The pads themselves spread anywhere between 4 and 6 feet.
A night-blooming water lily, ‘Antares’ will treat any garden pool or pond to a dramatic display of deep pink blooms.
If you’re worried you won’t see these beauties flower, they don’t usually close until mid-morning, giving you another chance to spot them.
It’s worth noting that tropical water lilies like ‘Antares’ tend to produce more flowers than hardier varieties, but these tender perennials can – surprisingly – be overwintered in containers.
Though night bloomers open at night, they still need full sun in order to thrive.
Nymphaea ‘Arc en Ciel’
This lily is absolutely stunning, and that’s not just because of the star-shaped white flower it produces. The lily pads are unique in that they’re variegated, and come in colors of red, brown, pink, and green.
It’s a hardy lily, so it will tolerate colder temperatures. It’s recommended that these lilies are planted in medium to large ponds.
They also bloom from early summer until the first few days of fall.
Nymphaea Capensis – Cape Blue Water Lily
This is an eye-catching tropical type of water lily, though it blooms during the day and provides a colorful display of purples that contrast well against the lily pads.
This is rather an unusual water lily, as they can tolerate a completely dry river bed for a long time, biding its time until the rain comes again. It can spread up to 8 feet wide.
Nymphaea ‘Carolina Sunset’
‘Carolina Sunset’ blooms with yellow-peach flowers during the day, providing a heavy perfume to any pond. The flowers reach around 8 inches in diameter, and like full sun in order to produce the most blooms.
If you prefer a water lily with smaller flowers at around 3-4 inches, the Colorado water lily is a good choice.
It also produces a lot of flowers to make up for the smaller size of bloom, and colors range from red to peach.
New leaves appear olive green, while older leaves are a medium green.
One of the more common water lily varieties, though this plant isn’t to be discarded because it’s widespread. It’s also hardy.
These beautiful pink flowers can grow to a maximum of 7 inches, if conditions are right. The blooms have soft pink inner petals, and the outer petals are a darker pink.
They carry a heavy scent, but you better enjoy them while you can – once they open, they only last around four days in total.
Nymphaea ‘Emily Grant Hutchings’
A spectacular night-blooming water lily, this plant produces impressive dark pink flowers, but needs a lot of space in order to do so. The pads themselves can grow up to 12 inches wide.
A winner of the Award of Garden Merit bestowed by the Royal Horticultural Society, this water lily provides a safe place for honeybees to drink without drowning, and produces huge white blooms from August through to September.
It needs full sun if possible, and like any water lily, hates being near a fountain or a pump.
Nymphaea ‘George L. Thomas’
A day bloomer, ‘George L. Thomas’ is one of the farthest-reaching water lilies, spreading to a maximum of 12 feet wide. It’s also a hardy variety.
‘Hermine’ has a longer flowering period from May until September, during which time it produces star-shaped pure white flowers, highlighting the butter-yellow eye in the middle.
It spreads to 3 feet wide, and while it will tolerate dappled shade, it prefers full sun.
A day-blooming lily, this is one variety which doesn’t appreciate full sun, unlike some others on this list. It also likes a warm climate, though it’s quite an adaptable variety and is fairly hardy.
It’s also a perennial, and the flowers grow as big as 7 inches in diameter.
Nymphaea ‘Marliacea Albida’
One of the more popular white flowering water lilies, ‘Marliacea Albida’ blooms from June until September, and loves full sun.
Nymphaea ‘Marliacea Chromatella’
‘Marliacea Chromatella’ produces smaller yellow flowers, as it’s a dwarf water lily. The flowers open during the day, and the plant itself likes light shade or partial sun at most.
Nymphaea ‘Mrs Richmond’
This water lily bears pink flowers, which fade to white at the outer petals, in June until September. ‘Mrs Richmond’ is a hardy variety, and likes full sun in order to produce the most blooms possible.
It spreads up to 4 feet wide. It was created in France in 1910 by Latour-Marliac.
Confusingly, the ‘Midnight’ water lily blooms during the day. It features gorgeous deep purple blooms, with unusually-shaped centers in a water lily.
It was bred in 1941 by George Pring, and can be kept in a large aquarium if the conditions are right.
Nymphaea odorata – The Fragrant Water Lily
Another hardy water lily, the fragrant water lily has leaves that spread up to a foot wide, with reddish undersides.
Flowers are white, growing up to 6 inches across, and bloom throughout the summer. They open in the morning, and close in very cloudy weather or in the afternoon.
It prefers full sun to partial shade.
Nymphaea ‘Pygmaea Helvola’
A dwarf water lily, ‘Pygmaea Helvola’ is perfect for a smaller pond. The flowers grow to a maximum of two inches, making the yellow blooms very dainty-looking, but they’ll definitely brighten up your pond! Bees love them.
Smaller water lilies are good for smaller ponds or pools, but they also thrive in shallower parts of larger ponds.
Nymphaea ‘Pygmaea Rubra’
Another dwarf variety, the name ‘Pygmaea’ is Latin for ‘pygmy’ or ‘dwarf’. Despite its smaller size, the wealth of color and interest ‘Pygmaea Rubra’ can add to your pond or pool shouldn’t be underestimated.
The flowers open as a soft pink, and deepen to a lovely red.
This eye-catching water lily has spectacular flowers, which have deep red inner petals, turning to pink as they get toward the edges of the blooms. The eye in the center is a deep red, to dark orange.
The flowers grow up to 7 inches in diameter, and the plant itself spreads to a maximum of 4 feet wide.
A dwarf variety, ‘Tetragona’ can even be grown as a feature in a container, as shallow as 15cm deep, providing you with endless possibilities when it comes to playing with conventional garden features and making them your own.
Flowers can be red, white, or purple, and appear from June until September.
Victoria Amazonica – The Giant Amazon Water Lily
The largest water lily in the world, and still part of the Nymphaeaceae genius, this is a spectacular giant.
It’s easily recognizable by the gargantuan lily pads this plant produces, which can get as large as 10 feet in diameter.
They do especially well in deep water, as the stalks can grow up to 26 feet in order to reach the surface.
In their native shallow waters of the Amazon River, the flowers start to open as the sun begins to set. This process can take up to 48 hours, but it’s well worth the wait, as the blooms can reach 16 inches in diameter.
They give off a fruity fragrance, and a scarab beetle pollinates these unforgettable blooms.
The Amazon water lily also has an interesting pollination process with this beetle, and both have evolved to improve the success rate. The beetle is attracted to the flower’s scent, and once inside, the flower shuts.
It remains closed for the next day, and the trap holding the beetle is made of a starchy tissue that the beetle can eat.
The flower turns a reddish-pink as a sign it’s been pollinated, and the flower opens into the next evening, letting the beetle fly to the flowers that have newly-opened, and will pollinate those, too.
In Victorian England, it was a race to see which gardener (well, two Dukes. The Duke of Devonshire and the Duke of Northumberland) could make this lily flower in greenhouses on their land.
Sir Joseph Paxton, the duke of Devonshire, was the first to achieve this in November 1849.
That sounds easy, but he had to mimic the warm, swampy conditions that the water lily needed, and he only had coal-fired boilers to do this!
In pictures, you’ll often see children or pets sitting in the middle of a leaf, which illustrates exactly how strong these lily pads are.
Frequently Asked Questions
What is the Difference between a Water Lily and a Lotus?
While they can get confused, a water lily and a lotus are different species.
A lotus is a Nelumbo, and a water lily is part of the Nymphaea genus.
While they both look like they float, the Nymphaea species float to begin with, but the lotuses emerge from the water to float. There is an exception to this, as the leaves of tropical water lilies rise above the surface.
Both types of plant feature dwarf varieties, which you can show off in containers, or even tabletop bowls to sit on your patio!
You can also tell the difference between a water lily and a lotus by looking at the flower. Lotus flower blooms have rounded petals, and water lilies have large and pointy blooms.
The difference is also easy to spot in the fruit they produce. The fruit of the water lily sits below the surface, and the lotus fruit stays on the surface of the water.
Can You Eat A Water Lily Fruit?
Yes. The fruit of a water lily is edible, though it can hold up to 2,000 seeds per fruit! It’s important only to eat the fruit from a water lily that’s grown in a pollution-free environment, otherwise you run the risk of poisoning yourself!
Nearly all varieties of water lily fruits are edible. You can even eat the rootstock during the summer months, though they will be mushy and won’t have a lot of taste.
The seeds can even be ground into flour, and the tubers grown from the tuberous waterlily can be eaten like potatoes.
Can Water Lilies Purify Water?
As aquatic plants, they help maintain healthy pools, ponds, and aquariums. As they cover the surface, they hinder the growth of algae, which can starve the depths of the water of oxygen.
Water lilies, like most plants, also pull carbon dioxide from the air, helping to clear it.
What are the Benefits of Growing Water Lilies?
Water lilies will help improve the quality of any water they’re grown in, so long as you keep on top of maintaining them, and making sure they don’t get overgrown.
If you include the fruits in your diet, they can have many benefits. They contain fiber, protein, fats and carbohydrates which help you to stay healthy. Minerals found in the fruit include calcium, magnesium, and niacin.
The seeds also possess antimicrobial properties, and they possibly help to reduce infection.
Are Water Lilies Toxic?
Not to humans. In many cultures, they’re used as a source of food. It’s important to note, though, that they’re toxic to dogs if eaten in large quantities.
It’s worth keeping an eye on your dog and what they might be eating when you’re out and about!
What Plants are Good Companion Plants for Water Lilies?
Water lilies are plants that don’t mind being near other plants, though they might end up taking over the surface of the pool or pond they’re planted in if you don’t maintain them, as they reproduce quickly.
Aquatic plants such as Eelgrass and the Java Fern are good options. Water Irises also look particularly beautiful near the blooms of a water lily, adding a truly tropical feel to your pond paradise.
Avoid planting Hornwort in the same water where water lilies live, as they release chemicals that harms the water lily.
If you’re looking to add more wildlife to your pond, adding fish is a good option.
Fish do help balance the ecosystem in your pond, and they’ll be quite happy among water lilies, so long as the plants don’t block out the light of the surface completely.
What does the Water Lily Represent?
In Buddhism, the water lily symbolizes purity and enlightenment, as they are very beautiful flowers which emerge from the mud. They also symbolize peace and love.
Water lilies are among the most popular aquatic plants, which will add a wealth of interest and color into any pond, pool, or container in your garden.
They’re happy in most conditions, and there’s one for nearly every type of pond and water you can think of.
They help purify the water they grow in, and attract beneficial insects to both the water and your garden, supporting your garden’s ecosystem.
The only thing you’ll have to keep an eye on with growing water lilies is that you’ll need to thin them out occasionally to stop overcrowding.
If you have a dark pond which needs new life breathing into it, water lilies are perfect for this.