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Hardy Water Lilies (Nymphaea)
There are a huge variety of water lilies available for sale in many different sizes and colours, any of which would make a welcome addition to your pond.
They perform a number of different but important functions in the pond, including providing shelter for pond life, keeping the water cool and cutting down direct sunlight to help control algae, removing nutrients from the water which also helps with algae and providing resting and egg-laying sites for all manner of insects.
However, while their functionality is beneficial, the main reason for choosing a water lily for the pond is, of course, their beautiful flowers, which range from pure whites and subtle porcelain-like pinks through yellows, changeables (variations on apricot/orange/red/yellow), to salmon, red and near-black blooms.
Some, mainly the odorata rhizome cultivars, can also have quite noticeable scents. There are many subtle variations of leaves too, which also add interest when not in bloom, with different shades of green, bronze, flecked and mottled purples.
As far as pollinators are concerned, the wildlife value of water lilies is a little more limited, as flowers are short-lived (four days), less abundant than other pond plants and while they do produce some nectar that is attractive to insects this is only available on the first day of flowering, after which it evaporates. It is also quite difficult for the insects to access, which is why you’ll often see a drowned insect in the flower.
Water lilies can be a little more challenging than other pond plants to grow successfully, but with a good healthy plant to start with and the right growing conditions they should flourish. It’s useful to reiterate these requirements, as if conditions are not right then even the best flowering strongest growing lilies will struggle.
- Most lilies prefer to be in full sun to flower best. By this we mean at least six hours on a sunny summer’s day. A few varieties, such as Helvola, James Brydon, Chromatella and Paul Hariot will tolerate a little less
- Whilst water lilies will cope with a little water movement, they don’t appreciate too much and in particular continuous splashing from water features is a no-no as this can eventually kill them
- Depth of planting is very important and varies from cultivar to cultivar (the smaller the lily the shallower they need to be, the larger ones can go much deeper) and the age of the lily: young lilies should never go to their maximum depth straight away, as this should only be done with established lilies of three litres and above (two litres for dwarf and small lilies).
Any lily that is already in leaf during the growing season should be placed at a depth that allows its leaves to float on the water. It can be dropped in stages if necessary as it establishes. If water lilies are placed too deep for their type and age, they will struggle to reach the surface and growth and flowering will be weak. Remember – depth is from the top of the basket/crown to the surface
- Water temperature and air temperature affect the growth and flowering. Water is warmer nearer the surface and warms up more quickly in the spring than deeper water. Lilies don’t really grow well until the water temperature is ten degrees C or higher and flower best when air temperature is above 15 degrees C.
- Water lilies are heavy feeders and also need room to grow, so they should be fed with slow release fertiliser in early spring and split or potted up once they become congested in their baskets. Odorata type rhizomes in particular need room to grow and create colonies before they flower well (for example Firecrest, Rose Arey and Perry’s Fire Opal). If there is a lot of sediment in the bottom of your pond, the lilies will likely get all the nutrients they need from this.
- Rhizomes should be planted so the growing tip is just above the surface as, if buried too deep, they may struggle to establish
- If the pond is too congested and suffers from heavy blanket weed, this can inhibit the lily leaves from reaching the surface or opening properly which will stress the plant.
- Finally, attacks by various pests and diseases can weaken water lilies and inhibit their growth and development -see our advice on Water lily Pests and Diseases.
Dwarf of miniature water lilies
Helvola is the smallest of the dwarf water lilies, with tiny stellate creamy-yellow flowers and small attractive green leaves with purple mottling. Once established it will flower quite prolifically and is ideal for small container ponds/barrels and small ponds up to about a metre square. Place in the pond at a minimum depth of 10cm and maximum 25cm for an established plant.
Small water lilies
There are a number of really good flowering small lilies, including:
- Little Sue – a changeable lily with exquisite stellate flowers ranging from light to dark peach and small speckled leaves
- Perry’s Baby Red – deep red flowers quite large in relation to the leaf size. Rated by Perry Slocum himself as very free flowering, though the jury’s out on that with me at the moment!
- Xiafei – a striking intense pink flower that tends to start a little earlier than other lilies
- Zeus – lovely waxy red flowers and mottled green leaves
Plantings depths from 20cm-45cm.
Medium water lilies
- Marliacea Chromatella – pale yellow flowers and attractive purple blotched green leaves. This lily has an RHS AGM and holds onto its leaves deep into autumn
- Paul Hariot – a changeable lily with pale apricot-yellow flowers deepening to orangey-red as they age
- Newton – deep rosey-pink flowers with unusual elongated leaves reminiscent of tropical water lilies
Planting depths 30cm-75cm
Medium/large water lilies
- Colorado – One of our favourite water lilies, a strong grower with lovely salmon-pink flowers. It flowers later into the season than most other lilies and hangs on to its attractive mottled leaves often until the first frosts
- Barbara Dobbins – another strong grower with large scented soft pale yellow flowers blushed with pink that stand clear of the water. Similar foliage to the Colorado.
- Joey Tomocik – vigorous grower with medium yellow stellate flowers held above the surface, mottled foliage.
Planting depths 45cm-90cm.
Large water lilies
- Charles de Meurville – Large dark pink to red stellate flowers
- Fabiola (formerly Mrs Robinson) – lovely large soft dusky pink flowers that lighten towards the outer petals and darken with age
- Marliacea Carnea – very pale pink flowers with an almost porcelain quality
- Texas Dawn – large stellate flowers with a delicate peach blush at the base held above the water and very strong purple mottling on the leaves. Another lily that flowers and holds its leaves later into the season.
Planting depths 50cm-100cm