Guna Rukšāne's story about Water lilies

Guna Rukšāne, Jaunrūjas Farm in Raiskums parish 

Have you ever seen the perfect garden in your dreams? I haven’t been so lucky, but predominant in descriptions of the Garden of Eden are the sounds of a burbling stream and birdsong, and friendly lions that must probably be feeding on nectar, because deer and other food predators would typically eat, graze calmly nearby. In romantic stories from the Middle Ages, the perfect garden is a grotto with a spring and soft moss where a beautiful lady can recline as on soft down duvet. In pastoral paintings a shepherd and a flock of sheep join this scene… As you can tell it is water that evokes a sense of harmony, and any picturesque landscape without a water feature feels incomplete. If a Latvian does not have their own section of a river or shore of a lake, then they dig a pond or install a fountain. Even if you don’t have your own body of water, you still have the option to create a small stream that appears here and disappears there, like in a Japanese garden.

“But that water lily of yours doesn’t want to bloom at any cost,” Astrīde says when we look at the pond created in the Brasla floodplain meadow. Well, of course, because it is the colour-changing water lily ‘Graziella’, whose need for warm and shallow waters lies in its genes. A few months later, we add ‘Luzitania’ and ‘Froebeli’ rhizomes alongside the weak plant, which Astrīde’s husband fishes out of my pond himself. Clusters of ‘Meteor’, ‘Luzitania’ and ‘Rose Nymph’ water lilies have grown and spread in the loamy clay of my pond, and it is high time they be thinned out. The thickness of the leaves is starting to interfere with the flowers, which are partially obscured by the curled-up leaves stretching up from the dark depths towards the light. Getting the rhizomes out is an enormous job, because after years of receiving rich nutrition from the mud of the pond they have become as thick as ropes and reach deep into the ground with unbreakable roots, like washing lines. There are two types of water lily rhizomes – as for many other aquatic plants (like sweet flag) water lily rhizomes grow along the bottom of ponds, while others form clusters and expand outward. It is easier to dig up the first type of rhizomes, but don’t expect it to be easy! A water lily enthusiast will pick up a shovel and get in the water and when they reach a cluster, having felt around for it with their foot, they usually say, with incomprehensible frivolity, that it is not so deep! The water might at that point only reach their waist, or chest, but the enthusiast forgets that once they’ve cut the root off with the sharp edge of the shovel, they’ll have to bend down under the water, because it’s often impossible to pull water lilies out by the leaves. They inhale solemnly, and then the head disappears under water… until hurray! They emerge with root in hand. You often you have to dive several times, and now all that’s left to do is to untangle the leaves and flowers that belong to the root.

The basic assortment of water lilies is still made up of varieties created in France and England at the beginning of the 20th century and after WWII. At the moment Americans are at the forefront of water lily breeding. The biggest contribution to water lily cultivation was made by Frenchman Joseph Bory Latour-Marliac. He created more than 100 varieties that still grow in our ponds today. After his death, two generations of descendants (the Laydekers) continued this work until the plant nursery was sold in 1991. Durable, magnificent and beautiful with colours ranging from white to a deep red or, more precisely, dark purple. The breeders weren’t completely satisfied, however, and growers also started demanded something new. So once again they looked to warmer countries where the range of colours, as with lotuses, is quite abundant. Crossbreeding Nymphaea mexicana creates a water lily in the colours of the sunset – changing from yellow to orange when it flowers with a slight tinge of brick red (‘Graziella’, ‘Paul Hariot’, ‘Leydekeri Seignoretti’, ‘Aurora’, etc.). Here in Latvia, however, they produce fewer flowers because they lack the necessary hot climate.

That’s how I almost embarrassed myself, because in winter 2012 I had promised the National Botanic Garden in Salaspils that I would create an exhibition of water lilies for their plant market on 16 June; I had organised a very successful one at the Cēsis Exhibition Hall the previous year. “Maija Tabaka’s works had been hung on the walls the day before and we placed water lilies in vases a couple of hours before the exhibition opened. Looking back I can only think that this time no one will be left indifferent – what is there not to like! The colours the artist uses and the fragility of the flowers belong together, like two drops of water,” says Nata Livonska, head of the Cēsis Exhibition Hall, adding that this is not the first time that the hall delights its visitors with splendour, fragrancy and variety. The cold weather in the spring and early summer delayed the flowering of the water lilies, however, and we could only bring 8 varieties to Salaspils, so we had to make do with a parade of peonies.

Water is not only refreshing, but listening to it babble, or even just observing it is soothing. Add to that a plant that brings a wonderfully beautiful, clean and fragrant lily up from the dark depths. A water lily.

Rabindranath Tagore has written many poems about the lotus flower: “The lotus blooms in the sight of the sun, and loses all that it has. It would not remain in bud in the eternal winter mist.” A long introduction about the unattainable – if only these beautiful, sacred Buddhist flowers were to thrive in our bodies of water. Recently, a woman from Liepaja wrote to me – she has been given a Komarov lotus as a gift that had already overwintered. Yes, the plant is listed in the Russian Red Book, as it has survived as a relic of the Cretaceous period when the climate on earth was warmer. It grows in the Khabarovsk region far in the east and while I think it is possible for it to overwinter in Latvian conditions, I am unsure whether it will bloom. Unfortunately, the lotus requires temperatures ranging from 24˚C to 30˚C for several months in a row. In Latvia this can only be achieved in a green house. Although lotuses love the sun, they will tolerate partial shade, but no more – they will not bloom in full shade. Additionally, 5˚C is already deadly to them. In the Komarov lotus’ native landscape, its roots survive the winters in mud that has a temperature of 4˚C. Even though I am sceptical, I also want to give it a try, because everything usually starts with a dream. Red daffodils, blue gladioli and yellow peonies were once unthinkable too, but has now been achieved. Step by step breeders break the boundaries of nature and ever more new varieties emerge.

I will just have to stick to the water lilies available here. There is, after all, nothing more beautiful than a white water lily – a wonderful white flower emerging from the dark depths of a lake, like a dazzling thought bubbling up from the subconscious. It chooses calm waters like lakes, or river bays and estuaries where it can grow unhindered. The dwarf white water lily (Nymphaea candida) has 5-9cm large flowers and is quite common in Latvia, whereas the flowers of the much rarer European white water lily (N. alba) are much larger in diameter. When people come to me wanting to buy a white water lily, I always ask why they don’t just dig them up from a lake themselves. This is, of course, not right, because water lilies must be conserved and aren’t actually so common in the wild. The second aspect is that the best specimens are selected through cultivation, and thus the culture reproduces specimens with larger flowers and stronger clusters that can produce up to 50 flowers, or even more in one season. This is what cultural varieties with white flowers are like too.

Speaking of water lilies that can be found in Latvia, I have to bring up (and at the same time warn the inhabitants of ponds) that I have brought an epidemic called Nymphoides peltata back from the botanical garden in Brno. It bloomed beautifully raising small golden flowers above the water in a self-contained pool. Only its heart-shaped leaves resembled a water lily. I coveted it and brought some rhizomes back with me in a bag of water. The N. peltata periodically produces runners with roots that float in the water and look for earth to take root. Jānis Rukšāns teased me lightly, saying that they would not survive the winter here as Lithuania is the northern-most border for them. It has only grown in one lake in Latvia and is listed as a plant in group 0 (extinct) in the Latvian Red Book. It even has a Latvian name – vairogu palēpe. I read the following on the Internet: “A species probably extinct in Latvia. It was last seen in its only deposit near Ziemupe in the late 1930s. Today, the geographically closest deposits to Latvia are in the Nemunas River in Lithuania and in Belarus, as well as in lakes in Småland, Sweden.” The reality turned out to be very different. It overwinters. And how! I planted it in just one pot that I placed in the greenhouse in a growing pool. After a week small leaves had already appeared one pot over – it had sent out a runner and the roots of the next plant had already formed. This still wasn’t enough to give me an indication of what was to come – I planted these two shoots in a pond and now a third of the surface of the water is covered by this yellow menace! The only water surface space that is free are the places where the depth is around two meters and they can no longer reach the bottom. I’m glad that I had enough common sense not to offer them in the catalogue, although I must say they’re beautiful. I’m looking at the selection in the Bakker 2013 catalogue and you can find the N. peltata there. It can be grown in a pool, but in a pond…

I want to encourage all those who want to see a water lily in bloom, but who do not have a body of water and do not want to dig a small pool. This beautiful plant can even be grown in very small containers – barrels, baths and tubs, or in holes in the ground that have been lined and filled with water. You do, however, need to think about oxygen supply, otherwise algae will multiply and that would destroy the beauty of the flowers. A small fountain provides the oxygen for the large pool in my courtyard (5m in diameter) that is left on throughout the summer and add oxygen to the water.

If you plant a water lily in a buried bowl or tub, it is best to overwinter it in a basement. It does not have to be covered by water, just make sure that the soil does not dry out. The approximately 80 varieties of water lilies that we grow are winterhardy. They often even freeze into the ice and still manage to survive.

You don’t have to worry about water lilies freezing if you plant them in a pond either, because in Latvia the thickness of the ice cover fluctuates at around 70cm, but the optimal planting depth for water lilies is at about 1m. Of course, each variety has its own requirements – the large ‘Colosseo’ lily likes a depth of 2m, and over the years it will expand more and more and take up a large area of the pond’s surface. Its flowers can reach the size of a saucer. The bright red ‘Froebeli’, on the other hand, will be content in warm coastal waters and its flowers are best planted at a depth of half a meter, or even less.

I am frequently asked about fluctuations in water levels. No plant likes this too much, but water lilies are incredible at surviving even in extreme conditions. Several years ago we decided to clean the pond and drained it of water. Work began a month later and only then did we see a cluster of ‘Cardinals’ in the reeds that had been hidden and thus not excavated. The reeds were thriving and even though the water lily’s leaves lay on the ground they were still green and even produced new leaves. This only proves that water lilies can be sent by mail and nothing will harm them, because the most important thing is to keep the roots moist.