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Green Thoughts Water, Water, Everywhere: The hydrophyte guide to lotus and water lily cultivation and care Part 1

Green Thoughts Water, Water, Everywhere: The hydrophyte guide to lotus and water lily cultivation and care Part 1

Most of Thailand has a high annual rainfall and Phuket is no exception to this, as anyone who lives here through the summer monsoon can testify. But like all natives of hot countries, Thais have a special reverence for water and its vital role in life. Expats have only to experience the April water festival of Songkran to realise that one of the impulses behind this celebration is to cleanse and renew, to herald the onset of the new rains that will bring life to the parched earth.

By Patrick Campbell

Sunday 19 January 2020, 10:00AM

This respect is related to rice, the staple food and lifeline of all Thais, and the most important natural contributor to the Kingdom’s economy. Why rice? Because successful production of the cereal is reliant on water: all those hectares of marshy paddy fields are testimony to its dependence on a constant supply of H2O in the growing season from May to November.

Unsurprisingly then, aquatic plants are a feature of Thailand’s floral landscape – and to a much greater degree than in Europe or America. Take the lotus (Nelumbo nucifera or lutea). The national flower of India and Vietnam, though surprisingly not of Thailand, it is a constant presence here, naturalised in lakes, or cultivated in water gardens and decorative pots.

Central to Buddhist iconography, deities are often depicted seated on a lotus flower; the divine one apparently caused lotuses to burst into bloom wherever he walked. Most important of all, the lotus is one of the eight auspicious signs of Buddha – a symbol of cosmic harmony or spiritual illumination.

The massive seed heads are truly exotic, resembling the pierced spout of a watering can. But even these are sensationally upstaged by the fat pink or white buds which develop into blooms up to 20 centimetres across.

The lotus grows in the wild by anchoring its roots (rhizomes) to the muddy bottom of a lake or river up to eight feet deep, while its brilliant green, nasturtium-shaped leaves float on the surface or rise above the water on long brittle stems. Some cultivars are grown exclusively for the glory of their huge white, yellow (lutea) or pink blooms.

It seems a pity to relegate this marvel to the kitchen garden, even though everything is edible: flowers, seeds, leaves, even the rhizomes. Much better to plant the sacred lotus, Thai style, in waterproof earthenware pots, half-filled with the rich, glutinous mud sold at nurseries in plastic bags – and watch them flourish. The container need not be wide but it should be tall, preferably vase-shaped. Propagation is by seed or by division of the root-stock.

A couple of provisos. The leaves may turn brown and rusty-looking at the edges. If so, you can easily remove them. Secondly, and since its natural habitat is rich alluvial slime, it will need frequent doses of proprietary fertiliser, maybe every couple of weeks. But it is worth the trouble… No Asian patio should be without one.

To those of us who hail from the West, water lilies (nympheas) are much more familiar presences, in part because some varieties thrive in temperate 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.

But if these plants are not revered here as the lotus is, they are still regarded as key elements 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 to manoeuvre and where their exotic blooms illuminate the watery setting. Remember that they require more lateral space than the lotus.

Where the water lily wins over the lotus is in its spectacular range of colours (I have magenta and violet varieties in my pond, 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 longer 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, however, can be propagated by root division. You can do it!

Aquatic gardening presents a new and exciting challenge. We all make mistakes, but embracing nature is always rewarding and salubrious. In time to come, and as green spaces disappear beneath the island’s remorseless concrete jungle, gardens will become the principal haven for all the fauna as well as the flora of Phuket.

Patrick has been writing for ten years about gardening in Phuket and allied topics. If you have horticultural or environmental concerns, please contact him at drpaccampbell@gmail.com. Many of his earlier creative and academic publications can be found at
Wordpress: Green Galoshes.

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