In weather that makes people wilt, tropical waterlilies put on a spectacular show.
Homeowners love ponds and fountains. Even a tiny water garden in half a whiskey barrel or a galvanized stock tank brings shimmering reflected light into the garden and allows gardeners to grow beautiful aquatic plants. Tropical waterlilies, which respond to warm summer temperatures by producing dozens of gorgeous and fragrant flowers, are among the best plants for ponds of any size.
"Tropical waterlilies truly take your breath away," says Rob Proctor, artistic director at Denver Botanic Gardens. Denver's climate is certainly not tropical, but it doesn't matter. All these plants need is warm water and bright sunshine. The bright, long summer days in Denver and elsewhere are ideal for water gardening -- and particularly for tropical waterlilies.
"It's magnificent to see them," Proctor says. "You have a huge vista of waterlilies across the pond. At first you concentrate on the flowers close to you, but pretty soon it becomes its own Monet painting."
Claude Monet, the great French impressionist artist, painted enormous canvases depicting the luminous waterlilies in his garden in Giverny, France.
Tropical waterlilies are especially prolific during the hot days of late summer.
"They outbloom hardy waterlilies by maybe 5-to-1," says Richard Koogle, director of operations at Lilypons Water Gardens, a water-garden specialty company in Buckeys-town. "If you're going to experience water gardening, you have to grow tropicals."
Hardy waterlilies have white, pink and yellow blooms. Tropical waterlilies bloom in a wider range of colors, including exotic blues -- some flowers glow as softly as moonlight, others are a deep, smoky blue, and some have flashy golden centers. In general, all the tropical waterlilies have brighter flowers than hardy lilies, and the blooms are often larger, up to 10 inches in diameter.
The flowers open on sturdy stems held above the surface of the water and last for three to five days. Night-blooming tropical waterlilies are perfect for hard-working commuters: They are very beautiful in the dusk and by moonlight.
Designing a water garden with lilies and other aquatic plants is really just like making any other perennial bed, Proctor says. Waterlilies of contrasting or complementary flower colors can be combined with other aquatic plants to add depth, variety and texture to the tableau.
"It's hard to make a mistake designing with waterlilies," Proctor says. "They are not meant to be grown in rows, so we have a lot of variety in shapes and textures."
Water gardeners can take great advantage of reflections, and big lily pads look striking when crossed by the dramatic shadows of taller water plants like iris, pickerel rush and cattails.
Denver Botanic Gardens also grows waterlilies in containers, and this is easy to do at home. Look for a container that complements your garden. If whiskey barrels aren't your style, glazed ceramic urns or modern weatherproof plastic pots in faux finishes are widely available.
The pot should be about 24 inches deep. For these miniature water gardens, you'll need to buy smaller lilies. Dauben (Nymphaea 'Daubeniana') is one of the best and most prolific bloomers for small pots, and 'Colorata,' 'Josephine' and 'Panama Pacific' are also excellent choices for small water gardens on a deck or patio.
Backyard gardeners rarely have room for the largest of the tropical waterlilies, the Victoria amazonica. These astonishing lilies' pads grow to 3 feet or more across and have a raised rim, like a tray.
Tropical waterlilies keep blooming into the fall and become dormant when the water temperature drops below 70 degrees. You can remove the potted lilies from their pond to a cool, dark storage area and keep them moist through the winter -- or you can simply start with new waterlilies next year.
"People always tell me, 'I wish my water garden were larger,' " Koogle says. "If you have mainly hardy waterlilies and one or two tropicals, you can just replace the tropicals every year. That way, you always get to try new plants."
How to wade right in
Anyone can grow tropical waterlilies. To bloom at their best, these plants need at least four hours of direct sunlight a day (this also applies to night-blooming waterlilies), and water temperature above 70 degrees. The pond (or pot, if your water garden is in a container) should be at least 18 to 24 inches deep.
It's not too late to plant your own tropical waterlily garden this summer. Water-garden specialty shops and mail-order suppliers sell plants all summer long.
Two good resources are:
* Lilypons Water Gardens
6800 Lilypons Road
Buckeystown, MD 21717
Lilypons sells about two dozen varieties of day-blooming and six night-blooming tropical waterlilies ($27 to $45 each).
* Van Ness Water Gardens
2460 N. Euclid Ave.
Upland, CA 91784
Van Ness Water Gardens sells a variety of day- and night-blooming waterlilies (about $25 to $45; unnamed seedlings, $20).