Waterlilies as weeds?

They said it was astonishing, and astonishing it was.  Staying in Pembroke, at the Landmark Trust’s splendid Monkton Old Hall, the astonishing place was Stackpole Court, the immediate location called Bosheron Ponds, and the biggest acreage of waterlily I’ve ever seen.

All of one variety as far as i could see (probably the native Nymphaea alba, though the flowers look a bit more grandly petalled than that), they grow in a series of what were once tidal inlets turned into an extravagant, but freshwater, lake by the landowners in the mid to late 19th century.  Apart from the mysterious beauty of the place, what was rather a surprise was that, considering the vast cost of their dam and subsequent waterproofing of the underlying limestone, the owners chose only to plant a single variety….  It is, certainly, very beautiful, but at the time they were making the ponds, waterlilies were undergoing a huge surge in gorgeous new varieties as the crossing of hardy and tropical species began.  (see below).

As to our own gardens, waterlilies had been in out thoughts already.  The previous month, Alec, deciding that his waterlilies needed thinning out, had spent an afternoon thigh-deep in his own pool in Lincolnshire, yanking up yards of dark knobbly rhizomes, slithery and evil-smelling.

Never ones to waste a good plant, several three and four inch chunks ended up in a plastic bag and were transported up to the Borders garden.  There, they were forgotten about for several weeks, remembered, then thrown into either the lower pool, or into a copper jam pan now no longer growing Japanese irises.

The roots floated.

In the pond, they got tied to a suitable stone, and then sunk.  In the ‘copper’, they were just left to float.

Having always regarded water lilies as ‘grand’ plants, expensive to buy, tricky to grow, the results were a complete surprise.

Now, only two months later from sinking, the lower pool has a dozen handsome leave and a first flower bud showing through the duckweed.

In the ‘copper’, the cuttings exuded blackish dye and an oily scum.  Several changes of water later, they began to produce minute ruby red leaflet, then roots, then bigger leaves.  The cuttings were easier to handle than — geraniums.

Oh dear, I need another pool…

Waterlily breeding – an excerpt from ‘Plants that Shaped our Gardens’:

….Few western gardens could support the subtropical lotus (Nelumbo nucifera), however important a garden plant it was in India and southern China.  Few western gardeners could afford to grow the astonishing Victoria amazonica, yet the idea of waterlilies, rather than lotuses, stuck in many minds.  Surely there must be good things to grow other than the rather dull European representatives of the genus Nyphaea?

Gardeners began to look enviously at the smaller waterlilies of the tropics and subtropics. The southern states of the USA had lovely things like Nymphaea texensis.  Central and South America had endless exciting species.  Africa had N. zanzibarensis or the enticing yellow-flowered N. burttii from Tanganyika.  Australia had the wonderful Nymphaea gigantea, with huge flowers varying from violet blue to white or even pink.

Breeders began to wonder if some of these could be crossed into hardy species, to give hybrids hardy in Europe, but with large, even perfumed, flowers.  They could have all the romance of the East, without the expense of providing warm water.  After all, in Egypt and the Orient, the true waterlily was an ancient garden plants. Petals of Nymphaea lotus and N. coerulea were used in the funeral wreaths of Rameses II (1580 BC) and Amenhotep I.  The same species were portrayed in the decoration, pottery and furniture of their tombs. Amenhotep IV and Rameses III grew them in ponds of their palace gardens.

In China, waterlilies, especially the white and perfumed Nyphaea tetragona, had been grown at least since the eleventh century, when Chou Tun-I wrote ‘it has been fashionable to admire the paeony; but my favourite is the water-lily. How stainless it rises from its slimy bed. How modestly it reposes on the clear pool, an emblem of purity and truth. Symmetrically perfect, its subtle perfume is wafted far and wide; while there it rests in spotless state, something to be regarded reverently from a distance, and not to be profaned by familiar approach.’

In western Europe, the earliest gardening reference to the waterlily is in Phillip Miller’s Gardeners’ Dictionary (1731). He writes, ‘in some gardens I have seen plants cultivated in large troughs of water, where they flourish very well and annually produce great quantities of flowers.’

One hundred years later, things were about to change in an amazing way. In a garden at Temple-sur-Lot in the Department of Lot et Garonne in western France, a gardener had an important revelation.  His garden, below the ancient castle of Marliac, contained a series of warm-water springs. He’d never thought much about them, but suddenly the owner, Joseph Bory Latour-Marliac, realised that he could use them to feed pools that would be warm enough to grow tropical water plants.

In 1858, he’d read an article by the botanist Leveque, who bemoaned the fact that the bright colours and large flowers of  tropical nymphaeas weren’t found in the hardy species.

Marliac’s imagination was fired, and he started to collect different species from all over the world.  Almost paranoid about being copied, he didn’t reveal his sources of material. However, the plants grew in their new surroundings.  He tried to cross them, and seems to have worked for several years without much happening.

Suddenly, in 1879, he bred Nymphaea ‘marliacea rosea’.  Nothing could then stop him. Other breeders tried to copy his success, but he was always very vague about what species he was using, and of techniques he used for crossing them.  He seems to have used the hardy N. alba and its Swedish variety ‘rubra’, crossing them into the exotic N. odorata, N. mexicana, N. tuberosa and N. tetragona (pygmaea).

He quickly produced more than seventy new varieties. Many were extraordinarily beautiful, some were perfumed, and only three were commercial failures.  Everyone, including the artist Monet, just had to have them. Some of the Marliac waterlilies were immense sprawling plants.  Others were small and neat.  Suddenly, there was a point in having a pool, in whatever size of garden.  There was a waterlily variety that was suitable.

Other breeders, like Amos Perry in Britain, tried to repeat his crosses, but have either been unable to get seed, or have produced only worthless seedlings.  Alas, Latour-Marliac went to his grave in 1911, taking most of his secrets with him.  His garden still exists, and is devoted, of course, to showing a colossal collection of waterlilies, including some of the glorious Australian Nymphaea gigantea group of waterlilies that haven’t yet been much used in breeding, though they do grow well in hot-summer regions like Texas.

Great things are expected from them, generally accepted as the largest and most beautiful of all the species in the genus Nymphaea.



About david stuart

garden writer and journalist, and occasionally a designer, with a garden in the Scottish borders, and his pal's gardens in Edinburgh, London, and Lincolnshire. They keep both of us very, very busy. Books I've written listed on my website, and dozens of articles and garden and plant pictures. Currently working on several new projects. One of these was to return to painting - see the blog - and which is proving exciting! www.david-stuart.co.uk or, more fun, have a look at www.pinterest.com/davidcstuart
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