Category Archives: White Water Lily

Water Lilies are Ungrateful

White Water Lily

Nymphaea odorata


Billy, John, and George hit the Haney Creek trail in Stuart for a third time in three weeks, and this week’s featured species is selected on the basis of smellin’ good: White Water Lily.   And it is as pretty as it smells.    Everybody has spotted this beauty at times in pondy places.

Before going on, it is relevant re. our recent blogs to re-mention hybridization.  Our species reportedly hybridizes with the native yellow “Mexican Water Lily,” Nymphaea mexicana.  Most of the garden Water Lilies are in fact hybrids.  Criss-crossing Nymphaeas was an institutional project of the Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis for decades.

Water Lily at Haney Creek this week by John Bradford

These are primitive flowering plants by certain measures.   Many plant enthusiasts are familiar with the split partitioning most flowering plants into two huge subgroups, the Monocots and Dicots.   The Water Lilies predate that fork in the road, and thus are neither Monocot nor Dicot.  Those big blossoms have leafy-looking parts, and they are the only flowers I know to commit pollinatoricide.  They kill their pollinators?  Sad but true.

When a Nymphaea flower opens it has at its center a pool of liquid surrounded by a wall of vertical stamens, like a backyard pool with childproof fence.  The stigma waits at the bottom of the pool.  An insect visitor splashes in and perishes, the pollen washing off its body sinking onto the stigma.  After that, the  stamens bend inward, covering the pool and releasing pollen.  At this point a different visitor is merely dusted with pollen and spared to fly away dusted pollen-wise and go plunk into  the pool of a different flower in its open-pool gotcha phase.  Nature is cruel.

Our examples of open-pool and closed-pool flowers are not actual Nymphaea odorata, but they play one in our blog.  It was either wade out there and shoot the real thing or use a nice dry hybrid substitute. We are wimps.

Proxy hybrid Nymphaea in the deadly open-pool phase.

After pollination, the twisty floral stalk retracts, pulling the fertilized flower down below harm’s way for the fruit to mature. The weirdness continues: inside the fruit the seeds become encased in an aril (extra seed-cover).   Apparently (and I am not certain) the aril is a temporary float, causing the seeds to surface and drift away to sink out of the competitive radius of the parent plant.

Nymphaea classification is difficult.  Beyond hybridization, environmental conditions influence the sizes and forms of the plants.  Several dubious and controversial varieties of Nymphaea odorata have thus had their moments in Florida floristics.  The overall distribution of the species is from Newfoundland to Texas.  One big widespread plastic variable species.

Nymphaeas have huge roles in ethnobotany.  It is intriguing when a species or set of related species with similar bioactivity turn up having the same uses in geographically separate cultures.  Nymphaeas are psychoactive (with a little controversy on that point), as well as sources of edible starch, and had probable narcotic applications at least in ancient Egypt and in pre-European Mayan culture.  The period artwork from both civilizations is eerily similar with respect to Water Lilies.  If you watch the History Channel, of course you realize how aliens with a penchant for intergalactic species introductions shared the cosmic gifts with both Earth-civilizations while out universe-hopping.   Take us to your pollinator!

Proxy hybrid in the pool-closed pollen-releasing phase.


Posted by on June 27, 2012 in White Water Lily


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