N. gigantea blue form

Lots of epithets, like precocious, obstinate and *!!*(^*,
have been have been hurled at -

Australian Waterlilies in Cultivation

by Kit Knotts - Click images to enlarge

Australian native waterlilies of the subgenus Anecphya are tricky devils to cultivate. Some people grow them well but most can't grow them at all. I happen to be one of the lucky ones - adults like my conditions: heat, high light and lots of Victoria fertilizer.

Australians are among the most beautiful of waterlilies. Their globe shaped blooms with graduated coloration, curly stamen arrangement, and huge size make several species in the subgenus majestic display plants. Flowers stand high above the water on sturdy stems and pads are the size of large platters.  

N. gigantea
'Albert de Lestang'

N. gigantea

N. immutabilis
purple form
The easiest of the Aussies to grow is N. gigantea 'Albert de Lestang', a selection of N. gigantea by George Pring at Missouri Botanical Garden in 1947. It begins white with pale blue edges the first day and then is white on subsequent days. It is not unusual for flowers to remain open for five days and for many hours before dawn and after dark. Do they stay open all night? I don't wait up to see!

The blue form of N. gigantea is somewhat harder to grow than 'Albert de Lestang'. It is not as large or robust. A pink form called N. gigantea 'Neorosea' is almost impossible to bloom in cultivation. One year a small plant bloomed for me in the corner of a propagation pond, never to repeat the phenomenon.

N. immutabilis has a limited track record in cultivation but it's a pretty good one! It made it through being almost completely buried in our 2004 hurricanes to thrive another year. It survived flooding from Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, their winter colder than ours, and kept right on going. For those in USDA Zone 10, the same plant often goes for multiple years. Though as tricky as the other Anecphyas early, young adults are reported less difficult in many locations.

Identity Crisis

The exact same cultivar that I have grown for many years as N. gigantea 'Albert de Lestang' has been distributed with the name N. gigantea 'Hudsonii' or 'Hudsoniana', creating much confusion. Most references, including Hudson himself in Flora and Sylva, p. 303-4, 1903, describe N. gigantea "Hudson's Var." as blue, not blue-tinged white. I personally think it's entirely possible that the blue N. gigantea in cultivation today is 'Hudsonii'.

With wider distribution among growers for testing, it is hoped that the Normanton lilies, recently named N. carpentariae, will produce plants that are less difficult. Such is the case with the changeable N. atrans, N. georginae and N. macrosperma as well.

For me, Australians begin to develop from tuber in mid-summer, reach flowering size in fall, and go right through the winter. They quit in the spring. If memory serves me correctly, expert Andre Leu has related that they can do the same in the wild. For summer display I rely on friends with greenhouses, like Rich Sacher, for earlier starts. In the past, I have had little luck starting plants from seed but plan to keep trying.

Getting Aussies going is very difficult. Sneeze near an Anecphya seedling or a small plant from tuber and it will go dormant. They don't like change of any kind, such as transplanting or weather changes. For many growers, seeds and tubers won't start at all. If they do, they can remain in the rosette stage or with a few small floating leaves for years. What exactly triggers them to start or grow to adulthood is something of a mystery. Even with what would appear to be ideal conditions, they remain unpredictable.

A group of aficionados is currently collecting data on conditions in the wild, seed storage and germination techniques because we would all love to see the Australians more widely cultivated. That will only become possible when a stable form is found and a general cultivation protocol is established.

The answer to that may not be in the Australian species themselves but in crosses with the African subgenus Brachyceras. The cultivar N. 'William Phillips' (N. gigantea [Anecphya] x N. colorata white form [Brachyceras]) was confirmed as a true cross by DNA analysis. The cultivar has not made its way to testing in environments other than that of the hybridizer.

N. 'Yasuhiro'
Photo by Yasuhiro Satou

Yasuhiro Satou, Japan, made a similar cross (detailed article) with these results. The cultivar is being tested in several locations in 2007. So far small plants have the visual characteristics of Anecphya with the behavioral traits of Brachyceras. We can all hope N. 'Yasuhiro' proves less capricious than its mother!

N. 'Yasuhiro'
Photo by Yasuhiro Satou

The Exquisite Waterlilies of Normanton, Mayvale Station & Gum Hole Lagoon
Queensland, Australia by Nan Bailey
The Stunning Species Nymphaea of Australia
Gallery by C. Barre Hellquist

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