Discover the Beauty and Mysticism of Waterlilies: Hardy and Tropical

Waterlilies are fascinating pond plants for their delicate beauty and the joy they bring to the water garden. But did you know this treasured flower also carries spiritual history and significance? Often called the jewels of the water garden, water lilies hold special meaning in Buddhism and Hinduism. In both these religions, waterlilies symbolize resurrection, because the flowers close at night and reopen in the morning. This act is reminiscent of spiritual rebirth. Buddhists also feel the waterlily represents enlightenment because the beautiful flowers rise from the mud.

But that’s not the only historic or spiritual reference to the beautiful bloom. The root word for waterlily is Nymphaea, a Greek word which can be translated as nymph, or a feminine soul that lives in nature. Ancient Egypt prized waterlilies and believed they warded off dangerous spirits. In Christianity, the interlocking petals of the waterlily represent unity and life energy.

In addition to its spiritual symbolism, waterlilies are wonderful flowers that are a favorite plant in ponds and lakes around the world. Waterlilies are available in both hardy and tropical types. Hardy waterlilies are perennials that can survive winter in gardening zones as low as 4 or 5. Tropical waterlilies will only survive year-round in tropical zones. Most waterlilies bloom during the day, however there are a few night-blooming tropical waterlilies that are truly impressive.


White Waterlily


Hardy Waterlilies

Hardy lilies are mildly fragrant, day-blooming plants characterized by floating flowers and leaves. You’ll find them in shades of red, pink, yellow, peach, white, and changeable. A changeable waterlily generally starts out yellow, and over the next few days of blooming, slowly changes to a peach or light rose color, such as the Sioux waterlily. The vast majority of waterlilies in North America are hardy.


Choosing the Right Waterlily

First, decide if you want a small, medium, or large plant. This not only refers to the size of leaves and flowers, but also to the pond surface area taken up by a mature plant. For example, if you desire a red waterlily that’s medium in size, be sure the one you choose will do well in your climate. This is a factor with many deep red lilies such as ‘Almost Black’ which can “burn” in extreme southern summers and even turn black. The probable cause for this is its wild, red European ancestor that is not acclimated to southern heat. Safe red choices include ‘Laydekeri Fulgens,’ ‘Sultan,’ or ‘Perry’s Baby Red.’ A reputable garden center or online pond plant retailer can provide useful information about specific cultivars in your climate.


Tropical Waterlilies

These gorgeous lilies are referred to as “tropicals” because they cannot survive northern winter weather. They’re basically the annuals in your water garden and will grace you with their beauty all summer and into the early fall season. You might be wondering why you’d even invest in these lilies if they don’t return year after year. Tropical waterlilies are desirably unique in several ways.

  • Tropicals are available in all the same colors as hardies, but also include rare colors like blue, purple, and violet.
  • They are intensely fragrant with a pleasing and pervasive aroma.
  • The flowers don’t float on the water but are borne six to 12 inches above the water, giving the lily a regal appearance.
  • Tropical waterlily flowers are larger than most hardy flowers.
  • Tropicals are available in both day and night-blooming options. Night bloomers are open from late afternoon to mid-morning, making them a perfect choice for people who work during the day.
  • The plants can get quite large, so they make a great choice for larger ponds but will still do well in smaller ponds.
  • The leaves on some varieties can be mottled and streaked with purple, are deeply toothed with deeply veined undersides, and can easily attain diameters of 15 inches.
  • Tropicals bloom more profusely than hardy lilies.
  • Tropical waterlilies can also be used in cut flower arrangements.


Red Flare Night-Blooming Tropical Waterlily
Nymphaea ‘Red Flare’ Night-Blooming Waterlily


These are just some of the reasons why water gardeners opt for tropical waterlilies in their pond. Choose a color and whether you want a day or night-blooming flower. Next year, you can enjoy a different variety.

Keep in mind that night-bloomers tend to run considerably larger than their day-blooming counterparts, are rarely fragrant, and have limited colors from which to choose. Their main advantage is their flowering schedule which is perfect for people who work 9 to 5. Consider choosing both a day and night-blooming waterlily to keep constant color in your pond.


Low Maintenance Charmers

Maintenance of waterlilies – hardy or tropical – is minimal if you keep a few things in mind. First, waterlilies are voracious eaters and need plenty of fertilizer through the season if you want them to look their best. Choose fertilizer specific to pond plants and follow the package instructions.

Next, waterlilies do not like moving water or water from a fountain or waterfall splashing on their leaves. Keep them at a slight distance from the waterfall and they should be fine. Also, protect their roots from your finned friends by placing 3-5” river rocks on top of the soil to deter the fish from rooting around at its base. Be sure to keep your koi properly fed so they don’t go looking for a snack from your lily.

Finally, trim back dying leaves and faded blooms. Decaying leaves can add unnecessary nutrients to your pond water. By plucking faded blooms, the plant will put all its energy into new blooms instead of wasting energy on spent flowers.


New waterlilies continue to be hybridized so keep your eyes open for new varieties that you might want to add to your water garden. The International Waterlily and Water Gardening Society holds an annual waterlily contest each year to encourage more research and experimentation with these stunning plants. Your waterlily options are almost endless.