The a fabulous people who occupied the north coast of Africa and
lived on the lotus, which brought forgetfulness and happy indolence.
They appear in the Odyssey. When Odysseus landed among them, some of
his men ate the food. They forgot their friends and home and had to
be dragged back to the ships. "The Lotus-Eaters" by Tennyson has
become a classic of English poetry.
Nymphaea nouchali var. caerulea (Sav.)
Family: Nymphaeaceae (Water Lily Family)
Common Names: Blue Water Lily, Frog's Pulpit, Blou Plomb,
iZubu(Z) and Blue Lotus in Egypt
This lovely aquatic plant with sky-blue flowers is South
Africa's most commonly grown indigenous water lily.
It is a clump forming perennial with thick, black, spongy,
tuberous rhizomes anchored in the pond mud by spreading roots.
The water lily does not have true stems, the leaves are on long
petioles (leaf stalks) that arise directly from the rhizome. The
leaves are large and flat, rounded or oval in shape with notched
margins, up to 40 cm in diameter, and cleft almost to the centre
where the petiole is attached. They are relatively short lived
and are replaced regularly throughout the growing season. They
start out as a soft shiny green at the centre of the plant. As
they age, the petiole lengthens, pushing the leaf towards the
outer perimeter making room for the new growth, and they develop
light brown or purple splashes which eventually cover the leaf,
leaving only the veins green. They then start to die, turning
yellow then brown and eventually disappearing under the water.
One plant can spread over an area of about 1 m..
The leaves show many interesting adaptations to their watery
environment. The margins are slightly rolled inwards toward the
uppermost side (involute) which helps keep the blades afloat.
The underside of the leaf, which is continually wet, has a
strong attraction to the water and this holds the leaf flat
against the water. The veins act like a structural support for
the leaves. The upper leaf surface is coated with a smooth waxy
cuticle, which gives it the appearance of being leathery and
shiny. This water-repellent waxy layer is of vital importance to
the plant, not only to help prevent the leaf from sinking, but
also to prevent the tiny stomatal pores, through which it
breathes, from becoming clogged with dust. When water splashes
onto the leaf surface, it forms rounded droplets that roll
across the surface cleaning up the dust as they go. Clean dust
free leaves are also better able to photosynthesise effectively.
Another problem facing aquatic plants is the supply of oxygen to
their roots. Roots must constantly be supplied with oxygen to
stay healthy and the water lily's roots are buried in poorly
aerated pond mud and therefore cannot get oxygen they way normal
plants do. It has overcome this difficulty by developing a
system of large internal ducts throughout the leaves, petioles
and roots which ferries the oxygen from the leaves to the roots.
The large, elegant blue flowers are held well above the water at
the tip of a sturdy green stalk and appear almost constantly
from spring until the end of summer (September to February).
They are bisexual, star-like and regular (actinomorphic), with 4
sepals, green on the outside and white to blue on the inside,
and many blue petals. In the centre of the flower are numerous
blue-tipped bright golden yellow stamens. There are colour forms
other than blue that occasionally occur, e.g. white, mauve and
pink, but blue is the most common and the water lilies at
Kirstenbosch are blue. The flowers open in early to mid-morning
and close completely in late afternoon and stay closed all
night. The opening and closing mechanism of the flowers is
controlled by the sepals. If they are removed, the flower loses
the ability to close. A fully open flower measures 15-20 cm
across and each flower lasts for about four days. The flowers
are sweetly fragrant and are visited constantly by bees who are
the most likely pollinator.
The famous night-flowering giant water lily of the Amazon,
Victoria amazonica has a complicated pollination mechanism where
beetles are trapped inside the closed flower where they are
given a meal in exchange for getting covered by pollen. When
they are released, laden with pollen they head straight for the
newly opened fresh flowers of neighbouring plants. It does not
appear that the nymphaeas employ such a complicated strategy.
The spent, pollinated flower closes completely, looking like a
bud, enclosed once again by the sepals. It sinks underwater
where the ovary develops into a hard green berry-like ovate to
pear-shaped fruit. In clean water they can be clearly seen
resting on the pond floor. When mature, the walls decay to
release thousands of small (1.2 x 0.8 mm) ellipsoidal seeds,
each surrounded by a membranous aril which causes them to float
for a while, allowing the seeds to disperse from the parent
plant, before it disintegrates and they sink under the water
onto the mud.
The Water lily Family
The water lily family, Nymphaeaceae, is an old and
evolutionarily primitive one, and is grouped with buttercups (Ranunculus)
and magnolias in the order Ranales. Furthermore, fossil evidence
suggests that nymphaeas have not changed much over the past 160
million years. All they have done is move about the globe,
keeping in the tropical and temperate zones. Another well known
genus in this family is Victoria, the giant amazon water lily.
The genus Nymphaea consists of roughly 40 species found in
tropical and temperate climates of both hemispheres. It is full
of synonymy, because different populations or colour forms have
been described as separate species which have since been sunk
into one species and in some cases the same plants have been
described as different species by different botanists, or the
name of one species has been misapplied to another species. It
all gets rather confusing. There are also many variants and
hundreds of hybrids that come in all colours, shapes and sizes.
There are only two species that occur in southern Africa. One is
Nymphaea lotus, the white water lily, or white lotus which has
night-blooming white or cream flowers and is widespread in
tropical Africa to southern Africa, where it occurs in the
former Transvaal, KwaZulu-Natal, Botswana, Swaziland and
Namibia, and in Madagascar, in sheltered water 0.5-2.5m deep and
in swamps. It also occurs in hot springs in Hungary and Romania.
There is a variety in Australia and it is widely cultivated in
the USA and South America
The other southern African species isNymphaea nouchali. The blue
lotus, Nymphaea caerulea and the Cape blue water lily, Nymphaea
capensis are no longer regarded as distinct species and have
been sunk into this genus. The type specimen was collected in
Coromandel in India. The meaning of the specific ephithet
nouchali has only been traced with the assistance of staff at
Kew who report that one of their specimens contains a note that
Noakhali is a district in Bangladesh. The variety name caerulea
refers to the sky blue colour of the flowers.
In Africa, this species occurs in tropical to southern Africa
where it is common, although not as common as it used to be, in
pools, dams, vleis and swamps, seasonal ponds, lake-edges and
slow-flowing streams and rivers, mostly in water 30 to 90 cm
deep. There are five African varieties:
Nymphaea nouchali var. caerulea which is widespread all over
South Africa, Swaziland, Botswana and Namibia as well as further
north in Zimbabwe, Zambia, Malawi, Angola, Mozambique, DRC,
Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania Sudan, Egypt and west Africa, from sea
level to 2700 m. In the Western Cape it is often found growing
with Aponogeton distachyos, the waterblommetjie.
Nymphaea nouchali var. ovalifolia, which occurs in the former
Transvaal and Botswana, as well as in Tanzania and the DRC.
Nymphaea nouchali var. petersiana which occurs in the former
Transvaal, KwaZulu-Natal and Namibia, and in Tanzania,
Mozambique, Malawi, Zimbabwe and Angola.
Nymphaea nouchali var. zanzibarensis which occurs in the former
Transvaal and KwaZulu-Natal, and in Mozambique, Kenya, Tanzania
and the DRC.
and the last one Nymphaea nouchali var. mutandaensis which
occurs only in Uganda.
History and legends
Water lilies, particularly nymphaeas, the true water lilies, are
steeped in history and tradition. The name of the genus Nymphaea
is a direct transliteration of a Greek word which Theophrastus
(a disciple of Plato and Aristotle) used to describe these
plants about 300 years before the common era, and refers to the
practice of early Greeks in dedicating the water lily to the
semi-divine water maidens, the nymphs. This is however by no
means the earliest record that we have of the water lily. In
Egypt, Nymphaea caerulea (now sunk in Nymphaea nouchali var.
caerulea), the blue lotus and Nymphaea lotus, the white lotus,
have been admired, painted, eaten, grown and revered for
thousands of years. The goddess Isis is said to have pointed out
that the rhizomes were edible, and its flowers, buds and leaves
are often depicted on ancient monuments, in murals, on pottery
and on furniture. Monarchs and priests of ancient Egypt were
laid to rest with wreaths made from the petals of the blue
lotus, laid in concentric semi-circles from the chin downwards.
There is also evidence, in the form of a painting in a tomb
dating back to 3000-2500 BCE, that nymphaeas were deliberately
cultivated in square, evenly spaced beds fed by canals. The
blooms were in great demand for religious festivals, offerings
of the flowers being made to the dead or to the gods, as well as
for gifts to visiting noblemen as a gesture of friendship and
goodwill. And later on, both Amenhotep IV and Ramses III (1225
BCE) are known to have had them growing purely for their
ornamental value in their palace gardens. The reason for their
veneration lies in the belief that the beautiful blooms of the
water lily, rising pure and clean from the slimy mud, were
comparable with the aspirations of mankind: purity and
In China water lilies are thought to have been grown for many
years. There is a beautiful passage by Chou Tun-I of the
eleventh century T'ang Dynasty: " . . my favourite is the water
lily. How stainless it rises form its slimy bed. How modestly it
reposes on the clear pool, an emblem of purity and truth.
Symmetrically perfect, its subtle perfume is wafted far and
wide; while there it rests in spotless state, something to be
regarded reverently from a distance, and not to be profaned by
familiar approach.". It has also long been cultivated by the
In modern times, the name lotus is used almost exclusively for
Nelumbo nucifera, also called the sacred lotus or incorrectly
the Egyptian lotus. Nelumbo nucifera is not a native of Egypt.
It actually comes from south-east Asia where it is often found
near temples and is regarded as sacred in China and Japan. It
was introduced to the Nile by the Romans, probably for food. The
true Egyptian lotus is Nymphaea nouchali var. caerulea (syn. N.
caerulea) and Nymphaea lotus.
Back home, in earlier times (c. 1800) in South Africa, the
rootstock of the blue water lily was collected and eaten, either
raw or in curries, in particular by the Cape Malays and farming
communities in the Cape. Today, only waterblommetjies,
Aponogeton distachyos, are still eaten.
The common name kaaimanblom, which means merman's flower in
English, was acquired because this water lily is often found
growing in a deep pool (kaaimansgat), and popular superstition
had it that a merman (kaaiman) dwelt in such a pool and would
drown anyone swimming in his pool. Furthermore, it was suspected
that the merman put the flowers there specifically to attract
his victims, especially disobedient boys. It gets the name
frog's pulpit / paddapreekstoel, because the leaves provide
resting places for frogs.
Growing Nymphaea nouchali var. caerulea
Water lilies are simple to grow, all they need is full sun, some
good soil and at least 30 cm of still water. Full sun is
necessary for the plants to grow vigorously and produce flowers
as well as for the flowers to open during the day. They do not
like to be in a pond with a fountain or in swiftly moving water,
neither do they like wind.
Two planting methods are commonly used for water lilies. Either
the pond floor can be covered with about 15cm of a sand and
compost mixture and the plants grown directly in this, or else
they can be planted in a container which is sunk into the pond.
The latter method is often preferred as the plants are more
easily removed for inspection or division, or for the pond to be
cleaned. Specially manufactured plastic water lily baskets are
the most suitable and are available from most garden centres. As
they have latticework sides, it is advisable to line them with
hessian before planting to prevent soil spillage into the water.
Water lilies are heavy feeders. In a natural pond the
accumulation of humus at the bottom is sufficient to maintain
lush growth. In artificial ponds and particularly for container
grown plants, it is important to add sufficient nutrients to the
soil. If not the plant will soon use up all available nutrients
and stop thriving. Just about every water lily enthusiast will
have his or her preferred soil mixture. Good sieved garden loam
is a recommended base although some swear by pure unwashed river
sand. It can be mixed with artificial fertiliser, or two parts
loam can be mixed with 1 part well rotted cow manure or equal
parts loam, compost and well-rotted cow manure can be used. If
using cow manure and compost it is important that it not be
allowed to come into direct contact with the water. Coarse
ground hoof and horn or bonemeal can also be mixed in. However,
it is a delicate balance because if too much nitrogen rich
material or fertiliser is used, it can cause an algae bloom in
the pond which will leave your fish swimming in pea-soupy water.
Also, it may encourage your water lilies to over exuberant
growth. If you are too stingy with fertiliser and the potted
water lilies fail to thrive, a slow release fertiliser pill can
be pushed into the soil near the roots.
The crowns of the lily (the part of the plant where the leaves
all originate from) should be planted firmly just protruding
above the surface of the soil and the soil should be covered
with a layer of river sand and pebbles in order to keep the
water clean. The container should be drenched, and then placed a
few centimetres below the surface of the water or to where its
leaves float naturally (i.e. to the level it was in the Garden
Centre). If your pond is deeper, the plant will adjust as the
petioles respond quite quickly to relatively small changes in
depth. Nymphaea nouchali var. caerulea requires about 30 cm, but
no more than 90 cm. of water above its crown.
An easy way to get loose, uprooted full grown plants established
in a natural or soil-filled pond is to tie a weight around the
base of the stem and then toss it into the pond where you would
like the new plant to grow. Make sure that the depth is
adequate, and the leaves will find their own level and within a
few weeks the roots will have grown into the mud/sand at the
bottom of your pond. A new plant can also be bagged with soil in
a hessian square, the four corners tied into a package which is
lowered into a natural or soil-filled pond. The hessian will
eventually rot by which time the plant will be established on
the pond floor.
Nymphaea nouchali var. caerulea grows easily in any part of
southern Africa, including the highveld and can be considered
hardy to a winter minimum of -1 to 4 oC / 30 to 40 oF (Zone 10).
In climates colder than this they will most likely be killed if
left outdoors during winter. Although the blue water lily does
go dormant during the winter, it should be left in the water
throughout its dormancy. At the coast they keep their leaves
Water lilies are without doubt the most beautiful aquatic plants
and are a must for every sunny water garden. But they need not
only be used in ponds. Innovative gardeners with small gardens
and sunny courtyards can enjoy them too, as they can be
successfully grown in a variety of water-filled pottery
containers, wooden barrels, old kitchen sinks and water
Propagating Nymphaea nouchali var. caerulea
The easiest method of propagation is division. Plants may be
left in place for two years, but pot grown plants are best
lifted, divided and planted in fresh soil each year for good
results. The plants are best lifted and divided just before new
growth commences in the spring (August). Pull or cut the fleshy
roots (rhizomes) apart and replant immediately in fresh soil
mixture. Each new plant should have at least one bud at the tip
of the rhizome.
The blue water lily may be grown from seed, but this requires
patience, for the plants take 3 to 4 years to flower. It is
difficult to collect the seed, because the seed pods burst
without much warning and the seeds disperse and sink quite soon.
A common practice is to tie a muslin bag around the ripening
pod. In this way after it bursts, the seeds cannot float away.
The seed can be sown in spring and during summer
(September-January). Finely sieved clean loam soil without any
organic matter or fertiliser is best. Seed should be sown
thinly, covered lightly with soil and then plunged into shallow
water, no deeper than 2.5 cm, and placed in a sunny position.
Germination should take 3-4 weeks The seedlings will look like
fine grass at first, developing true leaves later. When the
first two or three floating leaves appear the seedling should be
pricked out and planted into individual containers and immersed
back in the water. They may be submerged into deeper water and
larger containers as they grow and lengthen.
Arnold, T.H. and De Wet, B.C. (eds), 1993, Plants of Southern
Africa: Names and Distribution. Memoirs of the Botanical Survey
of South Africa No. 62, National Botanical Institute, Pretoria,
Bailey, L.H., 1950, The Standard Cyclopedia of Horticulture,
Volume 2, The Macmillan Company, New York, USA
Batten, Auriol, 1986, Flowers of Southern Africa, Frandsen
Publishers, Johannesburg, South Africa
Leistner, O.A. (ed.), 2000, Seed plants of southern Africa:
families and genera, Strelitzia 10., National Botanical
Proctor, M., Yeo, P. & Lack, A., 1996, The Natural History of
Pollination, Harper Collins Publishers, United Kingdom.
Smith, C.A., 1699, Common Names of South African Plants, Dept.
of Agricultural Technical Services, Botanical Survey Memoir No
35, Government Printer.
Swindells, Philip, 1983, Waterlilies, Croom Helm, United Kingdom
& Timber Press, USA
Verdcourt, B., 1989, Flora of Tropical East Africa, Nymphaeaceae
Author: Cherise Viljoen and Alice Notten
Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden