Water Lily Buying & Growing Guide

by Max - last update on
The beautiful water lilies in the water garden

Water lilies are among the most romantic and iconic blooms, bringing to mind European gardens and famous French works of art. Though many assume they’re difficult to grow and require extraordinary effort, the truth is that hardy water lilies are easy-to-grow perennials that can be planted in small ponds and backyard pools as well as indoor containers. They come back every year as long as they are given the proper care and small steps are taken to protect their roots from freezing. Here are some other reasons to love water lilies:

  • They’re available in tropical and hardy varieties.
  • Require at least four hours of sunlight a day, preferably more.
  • Their flowers last three to four days, emerge from spring to fall, open in the morning, and close at sundown.

Water Lily for Sale

Water lily Overview

Quick Facts

OriginEurope, Asia, North Africa, Australia
Scientific NameNymphaea
FamilyNymphaeaceae
TypeAquatic perennial or annual
Common NamesWater Lily
Height4 to 6 inches
ToxicityNon-toxic
LightFull sun
WateringLives in water
WateringLives in water
PestsWaterlily beetle, waterlily aphid, leaf-mining midge, brown china-mark moths

 

Planting and Care

Water Lilies

Planting instructions

Though water lilies live in ponds and pools, they require soil for their roots. The bare-root plants sold by garden centers are best planted in wide, shallow containers. The wider and more shallow the container, the better it is, because it will accommodate the plant’s sprawling growth while also avoiding the problem of being top heavy and easily overturned.

The plants do best in garden soil rather than potting soil, which will float away and cloud the water once submerged. Aquatic fertilizer pellets should be pushed into the soil and then the plants pressed into the soil with the tuber’s tips pointing upward. Once the roots are covered with soil, add a layer of gravel to hold the soil in.

Once the plant is potted, the container should be placed in the water, holding it at an angle until water bubbles stop appearing. The goal is to submerge the pot but allow the plant to lay above the water until it acclimates. The pot can eventually be lowered more, but the leaves should always float on the water.

Hardy water lilies will survive the winter’s cold temperatures as long as their soil line is below the freezing mark. If the plant’s watery home freezes solid in the winter the plant will need to be wintered elsewhere by lifting the entire pot out of the water and storing it in a plastic bag at a temperature of 40 to 50 degrees Fahrenheit.  If the pool does not freeze solid, the plant’s container should be located in the deepest part where the water does not freeze, then returned to its normal spot once the weather and water warm.

Tropical water lilies should be removed before the first frost, lifting the plant from its container and storing it in a plastic bag of damp sand stored at 50 to 55 degrees Fahrenheit.

Watering and nutrients

Yellow water lily

Water lily fertilization involves inserting aquatic plant fertilizer tablets into the soil that your plants are growing in. It should be provided once a month during the growing season but should not be added to the water, as that will impact any fish that you have and will also cloud the water.

Pruning

The blooms of a water lily last just a few days, and once their bloom has been exhausted they begin to sink. At this point they should each be snipped off of their stem at its base in order to prevent seed pods from forming, as they drain energy from the plant and cloud the water. Beyond that small amount of deadheading, the only pruning required is the removal of dead or dying leaves. Water lily plants should cover approximately 65 percent of your water attraction’s surface.

Pests, diseases, and animals

Water Lilies are vulnerable to pests that can significantly complicate the health of your pond. Two different water-based bugs are the primary villains. Water lily aphids hide on the underside of the pads and on the stems, sucking the sap and causing yellowing, curling leaves and killing flowers. Similarly, water lily beetles feed on flowers and lay eggs that yield larvae that strip tissue from the pads, leaving holes behind. The best way to handle both is to hose the leaves off, as insecticide will cause more harm than good.

As for diseases, the water lily is at risk for crown rot that leaves pads yellow, soft and slimy. The only way to deal with this problem is to cut away the infected area or plant before it impacts others that are nearby. The plants can also fall prey to leaf spot that can be recognized by red or rust colored spots on the leaves. Affected leaves should be removed.

Light

 Top view of water lilies with white flowers in a pond in Japan

Water lilies require a full sun position to thrive. Ensure your pond is not shaded from nearby trees or shrubs if you wish to grow water lilies successfully.

Temperature

Pink water lillies with vivid green leaves on water

Hardy water lilies are suitable for growing year-round in USDA hardiness zones 3 to 10. In these zones, they are perennial, so long as their roots are protected from freezing by being low enough under the water that they don’t get surrounded by ice.

If your pond does freeze during winter, lower the depth of your plant’s container to ensure its root system survives, bringing up back up to its usual depth in the spring. Tropical water lilies are more sensitive to low temperatures and can only be grown year-round in the warmest climates, typically upwards of zone 10.

Alternatively, in cooler climates with warm summers, you could consider growing tropical water lilies as annuals. To store your tropical water lily over winter, remove any dead or dying foliage and cut the plant back to its crown. Remove the plastic container from your pond, and cover it in a plastic bag. You could instead carefully lift the plant out of its soil, and place the rhizomes in a bag or container of damp sand.

Once your plant is fully protected, you should store it indoors at a temperature of around 55º F, ideally in a garage or basement where it will be cool but not cold. This will allow the plant to enter a period of dormancy. Come springtime, you can bring the plant back out and replant it in a plastic container and position it back in your pond (Better Homes and Gardens).

Propagation

A pond with water lilies

Water lilies can be propagated in several ways. Water lilies that grow from rhizomes are most commonly propagated by division. This can be done every 3 or 4 years when the plant has outgrown its container and looks like it needs repotting. You can check if it is a good time to divide the plant by checking if it looks rootbound when lifting the container out of the water, or if the lilies are starting to protrude out of the water rather than laying flat on the surface.

To divide the plant, remove the water lily from its container and brush the soil away from the rhizomes. Use a sharp, clean knife to cut smaller rhizomes that have a small shoot attached away from the main crown of the plant. These rhizomes can then be firmly potted up in a plastic container of aquatic soil and set back into the pond.

Rhizomatous water lilies also have the ability to produce baby plants that are still attached to the parent leaf. If this happens, you can remove the plantlet and transplant it to its own container. If it is very immature, you may need to first set it in a shallow tray of water in a greenhouse or warm environment until it is ready to be potted up and put back into the pond.

Water lilies with tuberous roots can instead be propagated by bud cuttings. These types of lilies produce side shoots that can be carefully cut away from the plant’s roots. Each shoot can be potted up into its own shallow container of aquatic soil and set in a slightly larger container of water. Ideally, these new plants will be kept in a greenhouse, with a temperature of between 59 and 64° F. As the baby plants grow, you should keep increasing their water depth until they are big enough to be moved to a pond.

Frequently Asked Questions

Which fish do best with water lilies?

Though koi are popular and young fish will do well with water lilies, the bigger the fish grow the more likely they are to eat your plants. It is better to fill your habitat with smaller fish such as goldfish.

I want a water lily pond but am concerned about mosquitoes. How can I control them?

There is no doubt that having standing water in a water lily attraction will invite mosquitoes. If you keep goldfish in your pond they will eliminate mosquito larva, and if you are simply using the water as a display for your water lilies you should invest in biological controls known as mosquito dunks, which look like donuts. These get tied to the side of the pool and will keep mosquitoes at bay for a month. It is also important to remember that your water lily pond is likely to attract dragonflies, which eat mosquitoes.

Does a water lily pond require movement?

While fish often require water movement to remain healthy, that is not a concern for water lilies, which like still water. If you have some kind of bubbler or water fall present in your water attraction, you should keep it at a distance from your flowers.

Water Lily Varieties

There are two types of water lily plants; hardy and tropical.

Hardy water lilies are able to live through the winter in colder climates, so long as their roots are below the level at which the water freezes. They come in shades of white, pink yellow, orange, and red, and only come in varieties which bloom during the day.

Tropical water lilies are suited to warmer climates, as they won’t survive winter in cold water. Tropical water lilies can be broken down further into two main types; day bloomers and night bloomers. These water lilies also tend to produce larger flowers than hardy water lilies, which often will stand on tall stems held high above the water.

Their flowers also tend to be more fragrant than those of hardy lilies, and they have larger lily pads. They come in a wider variety of colors than hardy lilies, including shades of purple and blue.

Varieties of water lily include the following.

Nymphaea gigantea

Nymphaea gigantea

Commonly known as ‘Blue Cloud,’ this is a sub-tropical water lily which is native to New Guinea and Australia. It produces pale blue flowers during summer months, which sometimes develop into a white color. The leaves of this plant are particularly large, measuring as much as two and a half feet across.

Nymphaea alba

Nymphaea alba

This water lily can be found growing natively in various warm climates across the world, including Asia, Europe, and North Africa. It produces medium-sized lily pads of around 12 inches across. Its flowers are white, contributing to its common name of ‘White water rose.’

Nymphaea capensis

Nymphaea capensis

This tropical water lily is grown across tropical regions such as Africa, Australia, and Florida. It is relatively drought-tolerant for an aquatic plant and can survive long periods in dry riverbeds. It produces purple-blue blooms that have earned it the common name of ‘Cape blue water lily.’

Nymphaea ‘Pygmaea Helvola’

Nymphaea 'Pygmaea Helvola'

This is a hardy water lily with a miniature size. It should be planted in shallow water, which is only around 12 inches deep. The lily pads of this dwarf plant reach a maximum size of 5 inches across, while the flowers will be under 2 inches in diameter. Blooms appear in bright yellow, contrasting nicely against the plant’s foliage, which is dark green speckled with deep purple.

Nymphaea ‘Pygmaea Rubra’

Nymphaea 'Pygmaea Rubra'

Another dwarf variety of water lily, this hardy perennial produces stunning flowers in vivid shades of pink, which develop to deep red as they mature. Blooms are cup-shaped, sitting above small lily pads, which are green with tinges of purple around their edges.

Nymphaea candida

Nymphaea candida

This water lily grows in freshwater environments across Europe and Asia. It produces white flowers with yellow centers through July and August. Blooms are medium-sized at around 6 inches across, with the lily pads measuring a similar size. The foliage of this plant is heavily veined, which becomes more visually prominent as the plant ages. This water lily is perennial, growing best in a full sun location at a water depth of around two and a half to three feet.

Water Lily Care - Types, Planting, Growing & Care Tips For Nymphaea