Water Lily

Even though I’ve seen Water Lilies growing here in Michigan, I never realized they were a perennial. The flowers are so perfect looking, I thought they must be some kind of tender plant that would have to be pampered and treated as an annual. Turns out they can live here in zone 5, and in even colder areas. They are just like a regular plant, except that they grow under water.

The family Nymphaeaceae covers 7 or 8 genera. Of these, the 35 species in the genus Nymphaea are the most common, of modern Water Lilies. These flowering plants grow in bodies of fresh water, with their roots in soil. The leaves, or lily pads, float on the surface and the flowers can be on or above the surface of the water. All but 2 species have leaves that are mostly round, with a notch on one side. Those 2 species belong to the genus Victoria, which are giant Water Lilies found in South America. Leaves of Victoria can be up to 7 feet across and support a human. They are also totally round, with no notch.

Species of non-giant Water Lilies fall into two groups, Hardy and Tropical. As you can imagine, hardy Water Lilies are perennials, surviving winters up to zone 3. They can winter in the bottom of your pond. Hardy Lilies only bloom during the day, from June to September, going dormant during the cold months. They have flowers in shades of pink, white and yellow, and the rhizomes can be divided every few years, like a dirt-growing plant. Their flowers and lily pads are smaller, and the plant may cover 5-10 square feet. The flowers appear at the surface of the water.

Tropical Water Lilies cannot tolerate cold, and are hardy only to zone 8. Their water needs to be at least 70 degrees, and they bloom from late spring to early fall. Tropical blooms come in a much wider range of colors, including both warm and cool colors. They also have larger flowers and leaves than the hardy species, and can cover an area up to 24 square feet or more.  Their flowers are held on stems above the water. Tropical Water Lilies are grouped by when their flowers are open. Day blooming flowers open in the morning and close in the afternoon. Night blooming flowers open at dusk and close during the night.

Hardy Water Lilies are considered a wildflower in Michigan. Native to the eastern half of the United States and Canada, they are now found all over. Many animals, including beaver, moose, muskrat, deer and porcupines eat the lily pads, and waterfowl eat the seeds. The lily pads provide good cover for fish and frogs. At the same time, in quiet water, lily pads can cover hundreds of acres. One plant may reach 6-7 feet to the bottom of the lake, and cover a 15 foot circle on the surface. This can create areas of low oxygen in the water, which is not a good thing. Once established, Water Lilies are difficult to remove from a lake, and are considered noxious weeds in at least one state.

If you are going to grow Water Lilies in a pond in your own yard, you’ll be glad to know that they are very easy to grow. The rhizomes need to be planted in a pot of heavy clay loam, topped with sand or pea gravel. Be careful of the roots, they are very sensitive and do not like to be disturbed. The pot should not have any holes in the bottom. Water Lilies need at least 5-6 hours of sun a day. As they grow, you can move them deeper into the water. It’s also important to remove the spent flowers along with the lily pads as they turn brown and are replaced by new leaves.


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