With tips for making the most of your
by Rich Sacher, Louisiana USA
Click images to enlarge
There are some really wonderful hardy waterlilies of which
I am fond, but my personal preference has always been for tropicals,
since only the tropicals offer flowers in a full rainbow of colors,
including blue and purple colors ... and tropicals also offer
night blooming varieties as well. Although tropicals are not
reliably winter hardy in most climates, they produce far more
flowers than the hardy lilies, and they bloom late into the summer
and fall, long after the hardy lilies have stopped blooming for
Once having decided that tropical is the way to go, the next
lily dilemma is: night bloomer or day bloomer? When considering
the possible choices of waterlilies for a given pond, we take
into account both the size of the pond and the available sunlight.
We know that waterlilies need at least five to six hours of direct
sunlight daily in order to bloom well. For some reason, new pond
owners often over-estimate how many hours of sun they have on
their ponds. Unless they have actually timed their daily sunlight,
they are usually only making a guess. When I am not convinced
that a customer really knows how much sun they have, I encourage
them to postpone their lily purchase until they have actually
timed the duration of sunlight on their pond. If they have only
four to five hours of sunlight, we can recommend one of the purple
or blue viviparous lilies which may perform well in limited sunlight.
There is often an unspoken presumption among novices that
a night blooming waterlily does not need as much sun as a day
bloomer ... it blooms at night, right? Knowing that they do not
have much daily sunlight on their pond, they may assume that
a night blooming lily is what they should purchase. However,
night blooming lilies also need the minimum five to six hours
of daily sunlight in order to bloom reliably.
I find it is important to question the new pond owner so that
we can discuss how big the pond is and how much sunlight it gets.
Then we can decide which waterlilies would be appropriate choices
for their situation. I recently had to refuse to sell the giant
waterlily, Victoria Longwood Hybrid', to a customer
whose tiny pond was 3 x 4 (1m x 1.2m). She really
wanted that Victoria, and could not be persuaded that
her pond was too small for this plant, whose individual leaves
can grow bigger than her entire pond! I was stubborn in my refusal
to sell the plant, and I think she went away angry. But Victoria
is too rare a plant to consign to such an ignominious fate!
This reminds me why I often tell hobbyists that every pond is
discovered to be too small within an hour or two after being
filled with water for the first time! Most of us always seem
to be striving to fit one more lily in our pond. I am envious
of those rare and lucky pondkeepers who never find their choices
constrained by the limited size of their ponds.
Along with the false assumption that a night blooming lily
does not need much sunlight, there may also be a presumption
that since it blooms at night, its flower would never be seen
during the day. It is helpful for hobbyists to be aware of the
blooming cycle of a night blooming lily. While true that night
blooming lilies do not open their flowers until after dark ...
it is also true that the same flower often stays open until 9
or 10 am the following morning. In fact, if the morning is cool,
rainy or overcast, the flowers of night blooming water lilies
often remain open until noon!
Without the above information, you might reject the opportunity
of enjoying a night blooming lily, and buy several day blooming
lilies instead. So, what happens? You faithfully visit your pond
every morning before you leave for work ... and no flowers are
open. You come home from work ... and no flowers are open! The
only time you get to see your day blooming lilies in flower is
on the weekends, because their flowers work the same shift as
you ... from 9 to 5! The irony in this situation is that if a
night blooming lily had been chosen for your pond, you would
see the open flowers every morning before you went to work, and
again in the evening, after dark.
Day blooming lilies, like night bloomers, can be variable
in their hours of opening and closing. A very warm mid-summer
morning with high humidity can sometimes cause day bloomers to
open at 8 am and stay open until 7 pm that evening, even though
they normally open between 9 am and 5 pm. A sudden drop in temperatures
in late fall can cause both day and night blooming lilies to
stay open for 24 hours ... they are chilled into a torpor which
arrests their normal routine.
There are a few day blooming tropicals which are well known
for often having flowers open from dawn to dusk in the summer
months. Woods Blue Goddess is such an example,
and many new hybrids of Nymphaea ampla often share this
trait. If there is room for only one lily in the pond, then these
make an excellent choice for their prolonged hours of bloom.
If the pond is big enough for two waterlilies, I prefer to
resolve the day bloomer vs night bloomer dilemma by suggesting
one of each. This is a perfect choice, since it provides the
possibility of having a flower open at almost any time of the
day or night.
Night blooming lilies have flowers which come in red, pink
or white. Obviously, a white flower would be the most visible
at night if there is some ambient light near the pond; if a red
or pink flowering night bloomer is chosen, it may require a spotlight
directly on the pond so that the flowers can be easily appreciated
at night. This fact should be considered before choosing the
color of your night blooming lily. We should note that a spotlight
on a pond will NOT delay the normal opening of night bloomers
flowers. Of course, if you often visit your pond with your early
morning coffee, any color night bloomer will be in full, glorious
bloom. This is also the best time to photograph night blooming
lilies ... the early morning light is perfect to give you accurate
colors in your photos.
Night blooming lilies have two bad habits: they can grow really
large, and they can multiply rapidly. In considering if a pond
is "big enough" for two waterlilies, we need to take
into account that while there are a number of day blooming tropical
lilies which are considered medium sized (4-5 foot [1.2-1.5 m]
spread), the tropical night bloomers are all exceptionally greedy,
and can easily grow to 8-10 feet (2.4-3 m) in diameter ... if
you let them.
A small pond which measures 4 feet by 5 feet (1.2 by 1.5 m)
is obviously too small for both a night bloomer and a day bloomer
... they would be growing on top of each other very quickly.
However, a pond measuring as little as 4 feet by 8 feet (1.2
by 2.4 m) could be large enough for both a day bloomer and a
night bloomer, if you know how to manipulate the growth of the
Waterlilies, like most other plants, are controlled by the
size of the pots they are grown in, and the amount of nutrients
available. By planting a waterlily in a relatively small pot,
you can restrict root growth and the ultimate size of the plant.
So, instead of planting into a 14 or 16 inch (36 or 41 cm) pot,
use a 10 inch (25 cm) pot. Instead of fertilizing every two weeks
during the growing season, fertilize every three weeks instead.
This will result in somewhat smaller plants but they will still
bloom normally. And there is still one more secret for keeping
the lilies in bounds: remove some leaves!
A well grown, mature waterlily does not need the constant
15-25 leaves that it may have during its peak growth. After all,
it is the flower we admire most, right? The leaves may be nice,
but who needs more than seven or eight of them? Not me, not you
. . . and not the lily, either! Once the plants have grown large
enough to cover most the surface of your pond, this is what you
Every week, trim off all the older, outer leaves on each plant,
leaving only the six or seven youngest floating leaves at the
center of the plant. This is quite enough leaf surface for the
plant to continue blooming as it normally would, but it prevents
the plant from taking up too much surface area in the pond. This
does not stunt the lily, and its leaves will remain as large
as usual . . . but by removing the excess leaves, the plant will
not overwhelm the space available. Most people like to see some
water surface between the waterlilies, and this selective pruning
allows you to control how much of your pond surface is covered
This weekly reduction in older leaves works equally well for
day bloomers and night bloomers. Note the before and after photos
of the tropical day bloomer, N. Foxfire, growing
at the New Orleans Botanic Garden. Grown in a 16 inch (41 cm)
pot, this large growing variety has multiplied into three plants,
and had a spread of more than 10 feet (2 m). I removed about
36 older leaves, which reduced the size of the plant to about
six feet (1.8 m) in diameter. This left more than thirty mature
leaves on this specimen, more than enough to keep the three plants
in constant bloom.
Knowing that a waterlily does not need more than six or seven
floating leaves to stay in bloom, we must be aware of those times
when we may have two or more lilies in the same pot, as illustrated
in the photo of Foxfire.
Top left - N. 'Foxfire' at 10 foot
(2 m) spread
Bottom left - after pruning to 6 foot (1.8 m) spread
Occasionally, new plants appear alongside the parent plant.
By lifting the pot to the water surface, it is easy to see that
there are two or more distinct growing points from which leaves
and flowers emerge. Although this crowds the root system, two
day blooming lilies can continue to grow and bloom well in a
ten inch (25 cm) pot. (This is NOT often true for night blooming
water lilies ... I told you they are greedy!)
So, you must be observant and use caution: if you are not
aware that you have two plants in one pot, and you remove all
but seven leaves from that pot, then one plant may have only
four leaves, and the other plant only three leaves ... not enough
to keep them in bloom! When you have two day blooming waterlilies
in a pot like this, you either need to remove one of the plants,
or leave at least six new leaves on each plant. They will continue
to bloom normally, although the size of the leaves and flowers
will be somewhat smaller. You will now have twice as many flowers
from that pot, on plants whose overall size is reduced. In a
pond where space is at a premium, that is a good thing!
We have mentioned that night blooming lilies have two bad
habits ... they grow too big and they multiply too easily. We
have already discussed how to keep them in bounds by removing
excess leaves. Now we turn our attention to their habit of rampant
multiplication, something which is an unlikely problem with most
Many varieties of night bloomers will multiply by sending
out short runners from their crowns, which can root into the
soil in the pot. Or, they can send up new plants from growing
points along their buried tuber. When you see small leaves appearing
on the water surface, along with the larger mature leaves from
the main plant, you are being warned that multiplication is taking
place. The photo of a red night blooming lily clearly shows some
of these smaller leaves among the parent plants mature
By lifting the night blooming lily to the waters surface,
it will be easy to see these offshoots, and remove them by the
roots or runners with a sharp knife. This can be done without
hurting the parent plant, even if a few of its roots are severed
during the surgery.
As we have already mentioned, you can usually get good blooms
when two day blooming lilies are in a ten inch (25 cm) pot, as
long as they are fertilized on a consistent schedule. However,
with multiple night bloomers in a ten inch (25 cm) pot, the parent
plant will soon stop blooming, and all you will have is leaves
. . . and eventually a lot of tubers. This is fine if you want
to propagate that particular night bloomer for next years
pond, but most pond keepers would rather have wonderful blooms
instead a pot full of small leaves.
Because night bloomers are so prone to multiplying, removing
the unwanted offspring must be done every few weeks, whenever
the small leaves of new plantlets are observed. This is not much
of a chore and can be accomplished in just a few minutes.
So, the dilemma is resolved ... we certainly may have the
pleasure of an exotic night blooming waterlily in our pond ...
And if there is room, it will make a fine companion for any day
blooming lily we may choose. Beauty by day and by night . . .
how lucky can we be?