David Curtright


 Diminutive Nymphaeas
and Their Place in the Hobby

by David Curtright
Click images to enlarge

Among the driving forces behind the propagation of waterlilies over the years have been the desires to achieve greatness of plant and flower size, multiplicity of petals, and vividness of color. Of course, there have been many small lilies produced. The fact that they occur in nature virtually guarantees that there will be diminutive cultivars produced, but it has traditionally never really been a goal among hybridizers, in general, to produce small lilies.

Recently, however, more of them have come into the hobby. This is undoubtedly because there is a greater number of successful hybridizers than there has ever been, but is also a response to the needs of the hobby. More and more people have small water gardens on patios and in corners of their small yards, so there is a greater need for dwarf lilies. 

Moderate diminution of leaves and flowers is common enough. There are many varieties that, when compared to the largest of the Nymphaea varieties available, and knowing that there are some very small lilies, can only be said to be "dwarf". As an example, N. 'Hall Miller' is very large; 'Marliacea Albida' is still large, but not huge; 'Hermine' is a dwarf; and 'Helvola' is miniature. To find truly small lilies, though, one needs to turn back to nature.  

N. 'Helvola'

I have tried to grow three species of small wild tropical lilies. I first encountered two of them in Australia. Walter Pagels and I found N. nouchali growing in a ditch near the airport in Cairns. It was growing in very shallow water, its tiny leaves and small, light blue flowers growing among some weeds and trash. When we first found it, there were no ripe seeds to collect, so we took a chance and trapped a few of the unripe seedpods in a plastic bag, leaving them attached to the plants, knowing that we would be back in several days. The bags kept them nearer the surface where they would stay particularly warm.

It worked, and we were able to collect several seeds, which we took home. This is where everything fell apart. The seeds germinated, but the plants did not survive. Neither of us succeeded with them. This species may be widespread in the southern tropics, and comes in shades of white, blue, or pink. There is some confusion surrounding the taxonomy of it and its varieties.

While on that same trip, we visited Ivan Nozaic, discoverer of the recently described N. minuta. He told us the story of how he had found it in Madagascar some years before. He was growing it in a small aquarium under a bench in his greenhouse. He gave each of us some seeds, and we took them home with high hopes. I think that I recall part of the discussion being whether this might be related to N. nouchali

N. minuta

We brought N. minuta home, and of course, Walter succeeded with it, while I failed miserably. This went on for a couple of years, with him growing it in an aquarium, blooming it in that aquarium, and then growing it outside in several places, while I couldn't make it stick anywhere. Finally, one day, the planets aligned themselves in such a way that, when Walter offered me some more seeds, and I said yes, that I was able to grow them successfully. I tossed the seed pods that he had given me into a 4" (10cm) deep tray, with an inch (2.5cm) of peat moss, covered with silica sand, then flooded with water. In the shallow water, the seeds germinated quickly, and the plants grew well. Well enough, in fact, that I was able to spread plants out all over our large county, testing its limits. It is now well established in my collection, and ought to be around for a while. It offers interesting possibilities for hybridizers, although there does not seem to be any variability in any of its characteristics.

The third species of small lily that I have grown is N. elegans, from Florida. Walter Pagels and I were driving near Punta Gorda, creeping along the shoulder of the road, driving as slowly as possible, while looking into the ditches for interesting things, usually Nymphaea. Suddenly, we saw tiny leaves looking up from a ditch about 6 or 8 feet (1.8 or 2.4 meters) below the road. The pool was about 20 feet long and 8 feet (6m and 2.4m) wide, and was shallow all the way across. The lilies were blooming here and there, with two types of flowers, one with eight petals and one with 11. We were fortunate enough to find tubers, so we took a few plants and brought them home.   

^ v N. elegans

I have since produced many hundreds of seedlings, and have had tubers recover for two years. The leaves are plain green on top, but have a distinctly colored underside. It is sort of a brown-red with a narrow green stripe around the leaf margin. The flowers are, as the name would imply, elegant little things, white or very pale blue, and have no more than 11 petals per blossom. I do not know anything of its tolerance for cold, but it seems to me that if it can handle the occasional hard frosts that Florida is heir to, it ought to be able to survive at least mild winters in most places, at least as seed.

One problem that I have noted, and this is true of N. minuta, as well, is that of seed production. It is possible for these plants to become weeds in tanks containing different varieties of Nymphaea. Seedlings begin to crop up in most of the pots in the tank, so you need to learn to recognize them as soon as possible to keep them culled out of other pots. Fortunately, each of these species has its own distinct characteristics, making them easy to differentiate from cultivars and other species.

I think that the future of some of these lilies within the hobby is assured. More and more hybridizers are revisiting, or experimenting for the first time with some of the species, some of which are endangered in their native habitats, so the possibilities are expanding. One breeder complained to me, though, as I offered to send him a specimen of N. elegans, that he had tried it in the past but that it had consistently produced seedlings that looked just like N. elegans, exhibiting none of the characteristics of the other parent. If somebody can break through that barrier, though, this plant might produce something of value someday. We shall see.  

The Miniature Tropicals
Introduction & Index
Articles by
Ivan Nozaic | Andre Leu | Carlos Magdalena | Walter Pagels

John Wiersema | Barre Hellquist | Nan Bailey | David Curtright
New Miniature Hybrids by
Carlos Magdalena | Rich Sacher

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