When I say waterlilies do you think first of the flower, or of the paintings by Claude Monet? More than any other flower waterlilies are intricately linked with a single gardener. Monet’s willow-edged pond at Giverny, with its wisteria-looped, arching bridge and floating lilies has been much-copied, while his paintings of the pond are loved to the point of reverence. (In the Monet room of the Chichu Art Museum on Japan’s ‘art island’, Naoshima this reverence takes on a spiritual solemnity. There is ritual involved: first you wait, in silence, to take your turn as one of the limited number of viewers allowed in the presence of the works, then remove your shoes and put on a pair of clean cotton slippers before slipping through panels to a large light-filled room built to display the five large light-filled paintings. The sussurant sounds of the slippers, the light, the scale of the works and their shimmering surfaces combine in an art moment like no other.)
Monet’s pond garden timing was perfect. Until 1879 the only hardy waterlily was a large-flowered white one. Then Joseph Latour-Marliac started crossing that white with colourful tropical water lilies he imported from the hot southern states of the US. In his garden near Bordeaux he meticulously selected and bred for colour and in 1889 caused a sensation when he displayed his amazing coloured lilies at Bagatelle in Paris. Two years later Monet took on the lease at Giverny and when he acquired the extra land for his pond, he ordered his pond plants from Latour-Marliac. The two corresponded about lilies and lotus and after Latour-Marliac visited Giverny, he created one of the first copies of Monet’s Japanese bridge in his own garden.
Most waterlilies are sun worshippers. They like it hot and keep the kinds of hours dermatologists advise against, waking when the sun is high, shining brightly through the hottest part of the day and closing up again at about drink-in-the-garden time. So to grow waterlilies you need to offer them at least six hours of direct sun. The other must-have is still water. They don’t like moving water, or water splashing on their leaves. The still water can be in a container rather than a built-in pond, but it needs to be a big one. Most waterlilies need a depth of about 50cm, though there are miniature varieties that only need to be planted a hand-span beneath the surface.
The hardy waterlilies that Latour-Marliac developed and Monet painted float on the surface of the water, flower from October to April in Sydney and come in white, pink, deep red and yellow. The tropical water lilies, which Latour-Marliac used as his colour genes, hold their flowers on tall stalks that stand above the water. They flower into winter, add violet and purple to the colour options and are often intensely fragrant. Some tropical lilies are exceptions in loving the sun but flowering at night. These usually open at sunset and close at morning teatime the following day. They prefer water temperatures of about 24 degrees, and tend to have a larger-leaf spread so are best for larger ponds.
If you can find no room for waterlilies in garden, courtyard or balcony, buy them as cut flowers. They last well, as long as they are submerged up their necks in water. They’ll close up at night, and dazzle for days with a heady fragrance.