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 Are you seeing the world through
rose colored glasses?
Factors Affecting Color in
Waterlily Flowers

by Rich Sacher
New Orleans, Louisiana USA
Click images to enlarge

If life were truly simple, we could describe flower colors in a concise and elementary fashion. We could say a flower is red, blue, green, orange, yellow or white. However, we are blessed with an entire rainbow of colors … varying shades of all the above which require more precise observation and description. Before we discuss environmental factors which can change the actual or perceived color of a waterlily flower, we must first look at communication factors which color our individual descriptive language.


I think there is a great difference in subtlety and vocabulary between men and women when it comes to describing colors, just as there is in their approach to shopping. Men often see shopping as an obstacle to overcome: get in, buy that pair of slacks, and get out … the faster, the better. Women, on the other hand, approach shopping as an adventure in exploration and discovery. Fabric, color, texture, style, and, finally, the price are all part of the process. In a similar fashion, most men seem to have a limited vocabulary for describing colors, while most women have an entire pallet of color descriptions at their disposal. A man might describe his new slacks as "brown", while a woman might say the color was really "taupe". He might say the Iris Black Gamecock was dark blue, while she might say it was more "eggplant."

Perhaps women are more culturally attuned to the nuances in colors, and have thus developed a broader vocabulary to describe them. It is helpful to keep in mind that differences in vocabulary can get in the way of accurate color description. If you don't believe this, just go to any paint store and see how many different colors of white are available for your ceiling!

Another communication variant may be the inaccurate color of a flower as it appears in a photo, or in a book … or even on your computer screen! Photographic film is notorious for shifting the blue color of flowers towards purple or pink in the printed photo. This gives rise to inaccurate flower colors in books, magazines and catalogues. I remember taking a photo of blue waterlilies in a blue plastic pail. When the photo was developed, the pail was still blue … but the lilies were pink!

Filtered film image

In older books, photographic filters were often used to correct for this shift from blue towards pink, but this also darkened and falsified the flower color in the printed photo. For this reason, it may be difficult to get an accurate impression of a flower's true color from a photo, especially if it is a blue or purple flower.  

Digital images are much more color accurate than photographic film, but even they can suffer color shifts when images are emailed to someone whose monitor is not calibrated to the same color accuracy as the sender's computer. I once received an emailed photo of a blue waterlily that was pink when I opened it on my computer. I emailed it back to the sender, where it arrived blue, the way it was supposed to be. Some color option adjustments were needed to my computer to arrive at a true blue for future emailed photos. And of course, digital cameras may be set with different calibrations for color by their owners, and that will affect what color shows up in the image, whether on the viewfinder or a computer monitor.


It might be a stretch to call sunglasses an environmental factor … but one time a customer came into my office to express disappointment that we did not have any blue waterlilies for sale. I knew we had at least ten different varieties of blue waterlilies in bloom, so we walked outside to the ponds, where I asked her to take off her sunglasses. She laughed out loud when she saw all the different blue lilies she could chose from. She was wearing the famous "blue blocker" sunglasses, which makes blue appear pink. (Reminds me of the expression "looking at life through rose colored glasses.")

The actual color of waterlily flowers can be greatly influenced by the growing season. The first few flowers which appear in early spring may have a much lighter or darker color than they will have in mid-summer. In fact, early in the season, these flowers may be smaller, have fewer petals, and even be shaped differently than their mature forms.

In climates where summer days are long and temperatures high, waterlily flowers may attain their full size, but their color can actually be bleached somewhat by the heat and sun; a first day flower may often have a deeper color than a third day flower, not only because of the bleaching action of the sun, but also because the flower grows and expands each day, diluting the pigments over a larger area as the petals expand in width and length. For example, 'Wood's Blue Goddess' will have a medium blue color flower the first day it opens, but will fade to almost white after three days in the hot summer sun. In some varieties, variations in color between first, second and third day flowers can be an asset … they may even be promoted as "changeable". However, if the third day flower loses most of its color, I think most people would find that unattractive. The darker colored tropical waterlilies are more prone to bleach out in the summer sun than are hardy lilies. One of the reasons may be the fact that many hardy lilies close their flowers in early afternoon, while tropicals may stay open for several hours longer each day.

The time of day, the number of hours of direct sunlight, and even cloudy conditions, can alter not only our perception of a flower's color, but its actual color, too. For example, you could have two identical varieties of waterlilies growing in the same pond, where one gets 12 hours of sun daily and the other only six hours. It would not be unusual to see a noticeable difference in the color intensity of the flowers on these two plants.

Our perception of a flower's color intensity will also change if we are looking at it under the full summer sun at noon, as compared to the same time of day when the sky is cloudy. This is one reason that photographers avoid the midday sun. They prefer early morning and late afternoon, when the sun's rays are less intense, knowing that this will result in better color saturation and more desirable reflections on the water's surface. For photography, even an overcast day may be more desirable than working in the midday sun. This is true for both film and digital photography. 

Different shades of pink
The intensity of the sunlight, along with the day length, will affect the color on most flowering plants, not just waterlilies. Travel to England or the northeastern part of the United States at the height of summer and you will see a deep intensity of flower color which is impossible to attain in the southern part of the United States. The latitude, day length, number of sunny days, time of year, and even altitude can affect the intensity of flower colors.  

Nymphaea 'Elysian Fields',
in summer at left, winter at right
I have noticed an interesting seasonal anomaly in my night blooming lily 'Elysian Fields'; when grown in full sun in the middle of the summer, the leaves are bronze colored, and the flower is a rich, even pink. This very same plant, when grown in the greenhouse under the shorter, cooler days of winter, has green leaves and a pale, apple blossom pink flower. The flowers are such different colors that you would think these were two different plants. Since the flowers open at night, the pale winter color is not due to fading from intense sunlight, but rather a reduced pigment production in leaves and flowers because of the limited sunlight available.  

Some tropical lilies will actually develop flowers of a completely different shape when grown in the winter greenhouse, as compared to their normal summertime appearance. The tropical lily 'Midnight Star' has fertile stamens in the summer but, in the winter greenhouse, those stamens morph into small petals, and the flower does not produce pollen. This gives the appearance of a semi-double flower which is quite different from the form we see in the summer. We have been concentrating on color changes in tropical lilies, because they seem more prone to the sun's bleaching effect … but as we have already mentioned, some fading in flower color is also possible among hardy lilies.

We have discussed that both the actual and the perceived color of a waterlily flower (and other kinds of flowers, too!) can be influenced by vocabulary, time of day, the growing season, latitude, and the quality of the printed or digital image. Now let us consider how we can manipulate our lilies to get more of the color we want from our flowers. 


Hybridizing for new forms and colors is one of the classic methods for developing something new. Perhaps a plant breeder is working toward a particular color or bicolor, or a hobbyist notices an unusual chance seedling or a sport in an existing variety. By vegetative propagation of these new varieties, new colors of waterlilies are introduced to the trade. In waterlilies, recent introductions have exhibited more flower petals, unusual flower shapes, and new bicolored flowers. Hybridizer Craig Presnell in Florida has been particularly prolific in creating new bicolored waterlilies, among them 'Foxfire', 'Ostara', and 'Rachel Presnell'.


N. 'Ostara'
Craig Presnell photo

N. 'Foxfire'
Lou Belloisy photo

N. 'Rachel Presnell'
Craig Presnell photo

Some of the newly created hybrids in Thailand also exhibit new and delicate shadings of flower color. 'Soft Cake' is an excellent example of this trend.

< First day | Second day >


While hybridizing can be a long term project, there are several cultural things we can do to maximize flower color in our waterlilies. We have already made the point that dark colored flowers are likely to lose some of their color in the summer sun. If you have some shade on a portion of your pond, that would be the choice spot for a dark blue, dark pink or deep red lily. Their color will remain more vibrant if they are not in sun for 12 to 14 hours a day.

It is a little bit of work, but I know hobbyists who have several ponds, with one of them too shady to bloom waterlilies. They will often rotate a lily from their sunny pond to the shady one, exchanging them every week. This provides all the plants with enough sunlight to remain in bloom, while helping to prevent excessive fading of the flower colors in mid summer.

Probably the most important factor in maintaining vibrant flower color in tropical waterlilies is to maintain high soil fertility at all times during the growing season. The warmer the weather and the bigger the pot, the more fertilizer is needed, because these tropical beauties grow so fast. Frequency of feeding is important in the rapid growing season, and many growers fertilize their plants every 10 to 14 days, using the tablet equivalent of a teaspoon of granular fertilizer for a 7 by 10 inch (18 to 25 cm) pot. Fertilizer tablets come in various sizes and in many different formulations. Sometimes I use four tablets every two weeks in a 16 inch (41 cm) pot; sometimes I broadcast a quarter cup of coarse granular fertilizer right on the soil surface. I may use 13-13-13 or something similar as long as it is coarse and slow dissolving. Sometimes I cover this fertilizer with a thin layer of soil, sometimes not. The point here is this: do not let your tropical lily go hungry during the peak summer growing period. If you are using this heavy application of fertilizer, it may result in some green water, but it will not hurt the lily. Of course, very young plants and seedlings should not be given the heavy dose of fertilizer recommended above.

I should mention here that I have always had a heavy hand when it comes to fertilizing plants, both aquatic and terrestrial … but I have never managed to kill a mature waterlily by giving it too much fertilizer!

So, if you want to maximize the color potential of your waterlily flowers, keep a faithful feeding schedule, and remember that a little too much fertilizer is preferable to too little.


"My blue lily came up yellow this year!"

Some hobbyists will insist that their waterlily (or Iris, or some other flowering plant) became a completely different color when it resumed growth in the spring. While we may have some differences of opinion on which color is purple or blue, it is hard to argue with blue verses yellow. In the case of a blue tropical waterlily "turning" yellow the following spring, it is pretty obvious what has happened. A small rhizome of a yellow hardy lily was growing in the same pot with the blue tropical, but no one notices the difference in their leaves. The tropical goes dormant in the fall and its leaves disappear. The yellow hardy begins rapid growth in the spring, completely overwhelming the dormant blue lily. Finally, that pot of lilies begins to bloom, and behold! The blue lily "comes back" yellow.

People have claimed their Louisiana Iris changed color in the spring … or their day blooming lily came back as a night bloomer! In all these cases, a stray seed, tuber or rhizome was present in the potting soil, and it was a more vigorous grower than the original blooming plant. Nature takes its course, and the strongest growing plant eventually takes over.


We have already discussed that people have widely varying vocabularies for describing colors, and that images of flowers may not be color-true. The Royal Horticultural Society of England has a very expensive set of color charts with each shade of a color having its own number. One can fan out these cards next to a flower, and find which number corresponds most closely to the actual flower color. So, if you say the color is RHS 42, anyone who has access to the same charts will know exactly which shade of blue or red, etc., to which you are referring. Problem is, without a color chart at your disposal, the color number is meaningless. I often wonder if we would do just as well with a full set of paint chips from a major paint manufacturer! Surely, if someone said their flower was exactly the same color as the paint chip "Orange Sherbet", we would have a pretty good idea of the color by looking at our own identical set of paint chips. Meantime, it seems that multiple adjectives, rather than one-word colors, are more helpful in conveying an accurate color description. Instead of saying "brown", we could say "paper bag brown", or "chocolate pudding brown", or "cinnamon brown". Just don't ask me to describe "taupe"!  

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