This section is from the book "Nature's Garden", by Neltje Blanchan. Also available from Amazon: Nature's Garden; An Aid To Knowledge Of Our Wild Flowers And Their Insect Visitors.
Flowers - Pure white or pink tinged, rarely deep pink, solitary, 3 to 8 in. across, deliciously fragrant, floating. Calyx of 4 sepals, green outside; petals of indefinite number, overlapping in many rows, and gradually passing into an indefinite number of stamens; outer row of stamens with petaloid filaments and short anthers, the inner yellow stamens with slender filaments and elongated anthers; carpels of indefinite number, united into a compound pistil, with spreading and projecting stigmas. Leaves: Floating, nearly round, slit at bottom, shining green above, reddish and more or less hairy below, 4 to 12 in. across, attached to petiole at centre of lower surface. Petioles and peduncles round and rubber-like, with 4 main air-channels. Rootstock: (Not true stem), thick, simple or with few branches, very long.
Preferred Habitat - Still water, ponds, lakes, slow streams.
Flowering Season - June - September.
Distribution - Nova Scotia to Gulf of Mexico, and westward to the Mississippi.
Sumptuous queen of our native aquatic plants, of the royal family to which the gigantic Victoria regia of Brazil belongs, and all the lovely rose, lavender, blue, and golden exotic water lilies in the fountains of our city parks, to her man, beast, and insect pay grateful homage. In Egypt, India, China, Japan, Persia, and Asiatic Russia, how many millions have bent their heads in adoration of her relative the sacred lotus! From its centre Brahma came forth; Buddha, too, whose symbol is the lotus, first appeared floating on the mystic flower (Nelumbo nelnmbo, formerly Nehimbium speciosum). Happily the lovely pink or white "sacred bean" or "rose-lily" of the Nile, often cultivated here, has been successfully naturalized in ponds about Bordentown, New Jersey, and maybe elsewhere. If he who planteth a tree is greater than he who taketh a city, that man should be canonized who introduces the magnificent wild flowers of foreign lands to our area of Nature's garden.
Now, cultivation of our native water lilies and all their hardy kin, like charity, begins at home. Their culture in tubs, casks, or fountains on the lawn, is so very simple a matter, and the flowers bloom so freely, every garden should have a corner for aquatic plants. Secure the water-lily roots as early in the spring as possible, and barely cover them with good rich loam or muck spread over the bottom of the sunken tub to a depth of six or eight inches. After it has been filled with water, and replenished from time to time to make good the loss by evaporation, the water garden needs no attention until autumn. Then the tub should be drained, and removed to a cellar, or it may be covered over with a thick mattress of dry leaves to protect from hard freezing. In their natural haunts, water lilies sink to the bottom, where the water is warmest in winter. Possibly the seed is ripened below the surface for the same reason. At no time should the crown of the cultivated plant be lower than two feet below the water. If a number of species are grown, it is best to plant each kind in a separate basket, sunk in the shallow tub, to prevent the roots from growing together, as well as to obtain more effective decoration. Charming results may be obtained with small outlay of either money or time. Nothing brings more birds about the house than one of these water gardens, that serves at once as drinking fountain and bath to our not over-squeamish feathered neighbors. The number of insects these destroy, not to mention the joy of their presence, would alone compensate the householder of economic bent for the cost of a shallow concrete tank.
Sweet-Scented White Water Lily. (Castalia odorata.)
Opening some time after six o'clock in the morning, the white water lily spreads its many-petalled, deliciously fragrant, golden-centered chalice to welcome the late-flying bees and flower flies, the chief pollinators. Beetles, "skippers," and many other creatures on wings alight too. "I have named two species of bees (Halictus nelumbonis and Prosopis nelumbonis) on account of their close economic relation to these flowers," says Professor Robertson, who has captured over two hundred and fifty species of bees near his home in Carlinville, Illinois, and described nearly a third of them as new. Linnaeus, no doubt the first to conceive the pretty idea of making a floral clock, drew up a list of blossoms whose times of opening and closing marked the hours on its face; but even Linnaeus failed to understand that the flight of insects is the mainspring on which flowers depend to set the mechanism going. In spite of its whiteness and fragrance, the water lily requires no help from night-flying insects in getting its pollen transferred; therefore, when the bees and flies rest from their labors at sundown, it may close the blinds of its shop, business being ended for the day.
"When doctors disagree, who shall deride?" It is contended by one group of scientists that the water lily, which shows the plainest metamorphosis of some sort, has developed its stamens from petals - just the reverse of Nature's method, other botanists claim. A perfect flower, we know, may consist of only a stamen and a pistil, the essential organs, all other parts being desirable, but of only secondary importance. Gardeners, taking advantage of a wild flower's natural tendency to develop petals from stamens and to become "double," are able to produce the magnificent roses and chrysanthemums of to-day; and so it would seem that the water lily, which may be either self-fertilized or cross-fertilized by pollen-carriers in its present state of development, is looking to a more ideal condition by increasing its attractiveness to insects as it increases the number of its petals, and by economizing pollen in transforming some of the superfluous stamens into petals.
Scientific speculation, incited by the very fumes of the student lamp, may weary us in winter, but just as surely is it dispelled by the fragrance of the lilies in June. Then, floating about in a birch canoe among the lily-pads, while one envies the very moose and deer that may feed on fare so dainty and spend their lives amid scenes of such exquisite beauty, one lets thought also float as idly as the little clouds high overhead.