To those of us who hail from the West, water lilies are much more familiar presences, in part because some varieties thrive in cool conditions that would spell death to the exotic lotus. There must be few goldfish ponds in Europe or America without a complement of lilies. Moreover, they have been immortalised for art lovers in the paintings of French Impressionist Claude Monet who created more than 200 paintings based on the water lilies in his garden at Giverny.
While nympheas is less revered in Thailand than the lotus, it is still regarded as a key element in any aquatic landscape. Indeed, there is a Thai book devoted entirely to water lilies ‒ all 150 hybrids. You can grow them here in shallow pots ‒ but although they are sold in this way at most garden centres, they look better in fish ponds in company with other aquatics, where their floating pads have plenty of room for manoeuvre, and where their exotic blooms illuminate the watery setting. Remember that they require more lateral space than the lotus. Remove spent leaves and flowers and feed regularly.
Where the water lily wins over the lotus is in its spectacular range of colours (I have grown magenta and violet varieties, but there are also white, red and yellow varieties); on the other hand, the lotus scores because it is fragrant and because it is much longed lived. Moreover, since its flowers and leaves hover above the water on long stems, it needs a much smaller surface area. Both need plenty of sun; the water lily in particular will not thrive and bloom unless it is in a sunny position. Both can be propagated by seed or, more reliably, by root division.
If the lotus and water lily are pre-eminent in the world of Thai water-gardens, there are others which can perform useful cameo roles. One such player is the Egyptian papyrus (Cyperus papyrus). Every schoolboy knows one fact about this plant: it was used to make the first paper. The second ‘fact’ is not common knowledge ‒ namely that the “bulrushes” in which the infant Moses was hidden, were almost certainly papyrus reeds. Tall with long, elegant stems surmounted by a ring of fine leaves (modified stems) which radiate out from a central hub, this sedge will grow a couple of metres tall, a stately presence above the surface of your pool or pot.
Smaller but equally valuable as a water margin plant and much easier to find in garden centres, is its relative, Cyperus alternifolius. Sometimes known as the umbrella plant, it hails from Madagascar and has somewhat broader, grass-like leaves gracing the top of each stem.
Both are what Americans like to call “accent plants”, and provide a contrast to surface-hugging plants such as water-lilies, or floaters such as water lettuce or water hyacinths. I have a cyperus growing at the edge of my fish pond and a couple in large pots keeping company with guppies and Mexican swordtails which hide in its ample roots. And it will grow more-or-less anywhere.
Another familiar sight on Thai forecourts is the water canna or Thalia geniculata, an upright foliage plant, often with attractive red stems, and large bright green, lanceolate leaves which appear lower down the growth. The clusters of tiny flowers are purple with white spots and dangle from the ends of these long stalks. For aesthetic reasons, they should be removed. Thalia can take the full sun of a patio, but will also survive in permanently moist soil or at the edge of your fish pond where it will add height to existing foliage. Leaves tend to go yellow at the edges, particularly if short of water. Thalia will germinate from seed or can be divided at the roots. An “accent plant” with a difference.
The water lettuce (Pistia stratiotes) and water hyacinth (Eichornia crassipes), both “floaters”, have been mentioned in previous articles. Consider carefully before growing either of these because they can become invasive. Indeed in some parts of the developed world, they are considered an environmental hazard. Better that they are cultivated in a confined space where they can be controlled.
The water hyacinth is so named because it produces lilac-hued spikes of hyacinth-like blooms above bulbous, air-filled stems. The flowers look attractive in a confined space. The free-hanging submerged roots are purplish-black, the stiff oval leaves a deep green.
One of the fastest growing of plants, it reproduces by means of stolons or runners which form new plants. Because of its extremely rapid growth, it can colonise and dominate a stretch of water in days, carpeting the entire surface and killing off other aquatics. The water hyacinth also has some commercial value in Asia: its fibrous roots are used to make up-market, woven furniture.This needs to be exploited.
Dr Patrick Campbell can be contacted at his home Camelot, located at 59/84 Soi Saiyuan 13; Rawai; Phuket 83130. Tel:66 076613227 (landline), 065-5012326 or 085-7827551 (mobile). His book The Tropic Gardener, an indispensable guide to plants and their cultivation in Thailand, is available from Seng Ho bookshop in Phuket Town or Delish in Rawai, or arrange a copy to be delivered by emailing him at firstname.lastname@example.org