A waterlily needs no introduction. It must be one of the first plants that children become familiar with. Whether through reading fairy tales about princesses and frogs or Beatrix Potter’s Jeremy Fisher, a lily pad is standard ingredient of ponds in children’s books. Furthermore, waterlilies are a feature of ponds, lakes and rivers the world over from Canada to Australia. Here in South Africa there are two species, but Nymphaea nouchali, the Blue Waterlily, is the only one in the Cape. (The other species, Nymphaea lotus is found in the more subtropical parts of the country from northwards from northern KwaZulu-Natal.)
The waterlily has a primitive flower structure in that the sepals, petals and stamens transition from one to another. A closer look at a waterlily flower will show that the floral parts are in a spiral. As one follows the spiral inwards the sepals change to petals and from petals to stamens. In some waterlilies this transition is quite gradual but in Nymphaea nouchali there is a pronounced change. The outer spiral of sepals protect the flowers while in bud but they also act as a closing mechanism to shut the flowers up at night. After flowering the sepals close up again and protect the maturing seeds. At this point the flowers sink back under the water, which is convenient for gardeners as there is no need to remove the dying flowerheads form the display.
Nymphaea nouchali is a very widespread species, occurring across all of Africa through southern Asia and into Australia. Indeed it is considered the national flower of Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. Until 1989 the African plants were considered a separate species with the name Nymphaea caerulea. Botanists now regard it as a geographical variant, sinking the name Nymphaea caerulea into Nymphaea nouchali var. caerulea. A number of other varieties are also recognised in South Africa but this is the most widespread and the only one that occurs here.
At Phillipskop, we have a beautiful lily pond where this species thrives. This is unfortunately in the part of the reserve that has suffered from Port Jackson but we are in the process of trying to clear the aliens and open up the area around. The lily pond is lovely place to play or swim on a hot day but please be gentle with our lilies so that the pond will continue to look as beautiful as a painting in a fairy tale book. We would also advise against trying to kiss too many frogs in the pond, the likelihood of any turning into charming princes is quite low.