While the classic cup or star-shaped flowers are a clue to the fact that they are among the earliest examples of flowering angiosperms, most garden specimens are relatively recent cultivars. A Thai book devoted entirely to the species contains images of no fewer than 150 hybrids. Such ubiquity means that water lilies surface – literally - in both temperate and tropical environments all around the globe.
Moreover, they are immortalised for art lovers in the paintings of French Impressionist Claude Monet; he created more than 200 paintings based on the water lilies in his garden at Giverny.
I myself have grown magenta, blue and violet varieties, but there are also showy white, red, pink and yellow ones to choose from. While most are single, some are double – for example, Gladstonia and Gonnere, both of which sport white flowers.To complete the visual appeal, most cultivars have contrasting yellow stamens.
To grow water lilies, root the fleshy rhizomes in saturated soil at the bottom of ponds or pots: once established, both leaves and flowers will seek the sun by rising to the surface. They can be grown here already established in shallow waterproof pots with plenty of surface area. But although they are sold in this way at most garden centres, they look better in fish ponds in company with other aquatic plants, where their circular, floating pads have plenty of room for manoeuvre, and where their exotic blooms illuminate the watery setting.
The leaves, which grow from the root stock on long hollow stems or petioles, can be as much as 12 inches across, and make ideal hiding places for small fish. They also provide shade, which helps both to reduce algae and to prevent over-heating of the watery environment.
Where the water lily wins over the lotus is in its rainbow-like range of hues; on the other hand, the lotus scores both because it is fragrant and because it is much longed lived. Moreover, since its huge, peony-like flowers and emerald leaves hover well above the water on long stems, the lotus 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 (rhizome) division. The only downside is that nympheas can become invasive in stagnant or slow- moving water, though that is hardly a matter of concern for the tropical gardener.
While these aquatics are low-maintenance, remember to remove discoloured leaves and spent flowers. And locate them in a sunny position: thus situated, they will reward you for years with a brilliant and oft-repeated display.
Dr Patrick Campbell can be contacted at his home Camelot, located at 59/84 Soi Saiyuan 13; Rawai; Phuket 83130. Tel:66 076613227 (landline), 0655012326 or 0857827551 (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.