Horticulture Highlight: Fragrant water-lily, Nymphaea odorata

July 2, 2017

another summer, and once again

I am drinking the sun

And the lilies again are spread across the water.

I know now what they want is to touch each other…

-Mary Oliver

The fragrant water-lily, Nymphaea odorata belongs to a group of aquatic plants referred to as the attached floating-leaved hydrophytes. The leaves, up to 10-inches wide, float on the water’s surface, attached by long stems (petioles) to the rhizome roots in the mud below. The genus Nymphaea is within the family NYMPHAEACEAE, both words taking their root from the Greek word describing nymphs, mythological divine, female, spirits in nature, often found by streams and lakes near forests. Its specific epithet alludes to the sweet scent of the flowers, which also may occasionally float on the water surface. Concord’s famous philosopher, author, field botanist, Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) evocatively, yet simply describes them thusly, “…Growing in stagnant and muddy water, it bursts up so pure and fair to the eye and so sweet to the scent, as if to show us what purity and sweetness reside in and can be extracted from the slime and muck of earth.”

Caught between the air and the windless deep

You float like a lily flower

-Karine Polwart

Acceding further to Thoreau, describing a water lily from 1858, “…I pluck a lily more than five inches in diameter. Its sepals and petals are long and slender – narrow (others are often short, broad, and rounded). The thin white edges of the four sepals are as usual or often tinged with red. There are some twenty-five petals in about four rows. Four alternate ones of the outermost row have a reddish or rosaceous line along the middle between the sepals and both the sepals and the outermost row of petals have seven or eight parallel darkish lines from base to tip. As you look down on the lily it is a pure white star centered with yellow – with its short central anthers orange yellow…”

Water lily floats

Serenity surrounds it

Only ripples pass

-Fiona Davidson

The spectacular, solitary, white (occasionally pink), waxy flowers of Nymphaea odorata open each day and close each night. They also are protogynous, those with both male and female reproductive parts, (stamens and pistils) in the same flower that mature at different times. There is a timed-separation of the female phase from the male phase, earlier the flower will open and close displaying the mature pistils (up to 20), later upon reopening and closing, it will be displaying the mature stamens (36 to 100). These flowers are also entomophilous, meaning being pollinated by insects, often beetles. From a taxonomic interest, the NYMPHAEACEAE represent descendants from one of the oldest diverging lineages of extant angiosperms (flowering plants).

Fragrant water-lily, Nymphaea odorata is one of about three-dozen species within the genus worldwide. Perhaps one of the more notable related species was the Egyptian white water lily, Nymphaea lotus, an ancient garden plant recalled today in museum collections of decorations, pottery and furniture. In China water-lilies have been grown for an unknown amount of time.  In the eleventh century, the Neo-Confucianist, Chou-Tun-I (1017-1073) wrote reverently, “…it has been fashionable to admire the peony; but my favorite 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…In my opinion, the chrysanthemum is the flower of retirement and culture; the peony, the flower of rank and wealth; the water lily, the lady of virtue…”

In Western Europe, Phillip Miller’s (1691-1771) famous Gardener’s Dictionary (1731) praised their beauty. Over time gardeners began to look for more cold hardy forms.  Ultimately the  major advancement in this regard began in the 1850’s, in western France, at the garden of Joseph Bory Latour-Marliac (1830-1911). Below his ancient castle were a series of warm-water springs and he began collecting different species from around the world, and breeding crosses between them. In 1879 he succeeded in introducing beautiful and more importantly cold-hardy hybrids and cultivars, some using subspecies of Nymphaea odorata. Soon there-after developed an increased and excited passion for waterlilies among gardeners.

One of Latour-Marliac’ most famous clients was Claude Monet (1840-1926). Monet started renting a home in Giverny in 1883, and would buy it in 1890. At the turn-of-the-century he redirected a stream on his land to make a water-lily pond. This would eventually have a monumental impact on the world of art. During the last decades of his life he produced 250 oil paintings of waterlilies. Eight mural sized paintings on display at the Musee de l’Orangerie in Paris are perennial favorites. In June of 2008, in London, one Monet waterlily painting sold at auction for 41-million Pounds sterling (about $60-million at the then exchange rate). More recently, in May 2014, at auction in New York, a Monet waterlily sold for $27-million.

On your next summer visit to Mount Auburn, look for our Fragrant water-lily, Nymphaea odorata at Auburn Lake and Willow Pond. You might also want to consider investing some of your time in a try at en plein air.

Now will the water-lilies stain the lake

With chalices of cream,

Set in their saucer leaves of olive-green

On greener water, motionless, opaque,…

                –Vita Sackeville-West

 Life is not easy water lily,

For your leaves know this for sure,

Yesterday stood a bird of prey,

That prayed for a fish to eat,

Then tore the leaf as it fought,

To get its dinner for the day,..

-Sarah Mkhonza

 

About the Author: Jim Gorman

Visitor Services Assistant

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3 Comments

  1. Sharon Bauer says:

    What a joy to read! Thank you for gathering together our own 200-year-old Thoreau with ancient Chinese poets, Giverny and Mary Oliver. This essay is a treasure.

  2. Mary says:

    Very interesting read, I am bringing my walking group to Mt. Auburn tomorrow and will look for the water lilies.

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