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Choosing the Right Water Lily for Your Pond

By: Dr Gareth Evans - Updated: 22 Feb 2021 | comments*Discuss
Water Lily Dwarf Small Vigorous Medium

There’s nothing quite like a water lily but adding one of these striking and instantly recognisable aquatic plants to a pond is not without its problems.

The huge number of varieties available coupled with their range of sizes – from small examples which would barely cover a square foot (0.1sq m) of pond surface to giants that can easily blanket an area fifty times as large – make choosing the right one as difficult as it is important.

Add to this that although all water lilies need good daily exposure to full sun if they are to flower properly, exactly how long they need varies considerably between the different kinds and picking something appropriate can become quite complicated.

Fortunately, there are ways to take a lot of the uncertainty out of the job, and with a little careful research, you should be able to find just the right lily for your pond without too much trouble.

Picking the Right Size

Water lilies are normally grouped into four broad categories – dwarf, small, medium and vigorous – and although this isn’t a perfect system, since some lilies don’t really fit neatly into one category or another, it’s a pretty good starting point and works well enough most of the time.

Members of the 'vigorous' group are not candidates for the garden – unless, that is, yours includes a lake or a slow moving river! Deciding which of the remaining three general types you should be looking for obviously depends on the size of your pond and the trick is to pick your lilies so that when they’re fully grown, they’ll still leave around half of the pond’s surface area uncovered. It doesn’t matter whether you’re planning on a single specimen lily or two or three varieties, the same rule applies; the combined total cover shouldn’t amount to more than 50 per cent of the pond.

Once you’ve worked out the surface area of your pond, the rest becomes fairly straight forward and all that remains is to find a lily to suit your needs from the appropriate group. There’s a good range of colours and growing habits in all of them, so whatever you’re looking for, you shouldn’t be disappointed. Look out for varieties labelled 'changeable' – their flowers start out yellow, before turning pink and finally red; if the idea appeals, it can certainly add a little extra interest to the pond.

Dwarf Lilies

With a spread of 12 to 24 inches (30-60cm) and covering between 1 and 3 square feet (0.1 – 0.3sq m) when fully grown, dwarf lilies in general are ideally suited to small ponds, while some of the smallest of their kind can safely be used in tubs and half-barrels.

They need a planting depth of around 6 inches (15cm) and will repay selection with a series of small but beautiful flowers over the summer.

Some of the best kinds to consider include:

  • Nymphaea 'Aurora' – a compact 'changeable' variety, suited to tubs as well as small ponds.
  • Nymphaea 'Paul Hariot' – another 'changeable' it has big flowers for a dwarf variety.
  • N. pygmaea'Alba' – a tiny flowering variety ideal for the smallest of water features.
  • N. pygmaea'Helvola' – a popular and attractive lily, with prolific yellow star shaped flowers.

Small Lilies

Small lilies typically need a planting depth of around a foot (30cm) and cover an area of around 3 – 12 square feet (0.3 – 1.1sq m), with a spread of between 2 and 4 feet (0.6 – 1.2m). Small lilies will do well in small ponds, and offer larger flowers than most of the dwarf varieties.

Look out for the following varieties, amongst others:

  • Nymphaea 'Froebeli' – not particularly commonly seen, but well worth trying; produces prolific deep red flowers.
  • Nymphaea 'Laydekeri' – a number of Laydekeri varieties exist, all of which are ideal for even very small ponds.
  • Nymphaea 'Sioux' – a 'changeable' variety with distinctively pointed petals and purple spotted leaves.

Medium Lilies

Perfect as a specimen lily in larger ponds, this group’s members will cover up to 20 square feet (1.8sq m) of the surface when they are fully grown, having a spread of around 5 feet (1.5m) per plant. These lilies typically require a planting depth of between 18 inches and 2 feet (45- 60cm).

Good examples include:

  • Nymphaea marliacea 'Albida' – an ever-popular favourite, with prolific and highly fragrant snow white flowers.
  • Nymphaea 'Maseniello' – a strong and prolific hybrid lily, with rose-pink flowers; inclined to spread, so it’s not suitable for very small ponds.
  • Nymphaea atropurpurea – deep red, cup shaped flowers, suitable for most ponds with a surface area of around 35 square feet (3.2 sq m) or more.
Tempting though an attractive photograph may be – or a 'bargain' price – it’s well worth making sure that the lily you pick really is the right one for your pond; in the long run, you’ll be glad you did.

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[Add a Comment]
What do you mean by ‘spread’ and ‘area covered’ - to mean they are the same thing but you give different values for them. Can you explain please.
Mrs E - 22-Feb-21 @ 12:48 PM
I put a water soldier on my new pond but since it's been in there, it's leaves have gone brown. What should I do?
Rozy - 15-Aug-20 @ 3:25 PM
Hello, I have a smallish pond with quite a large lily in place could this be the reason why my water level is constantly falling or could it be that I have a dreaded leak !!! Any ideas anybody ? Regards Mick.
mick - 17-Sep-19 @ 9:01 PM
I have a proud 3.5 meters long 2.3.meters wide from 2 foot 6 to 4 foot 6 I get a lot of sun in my garden lookingfor water lily's with big leaves 2 cover 50% of which ones do I get
Dick - 27-Jun-19 @ 6:33 PM
Why are some of my water lily leaves, both on the surface and still submerged, brown instead of green? One even seems to be turning brown having started out green.
Bush - 14-Jun-19 @ 1:13 PM
The water lilies have grown well, but the flowers, when produced haven't opened. I wondered why? Also the water soldiers seem to have not surfaced and have gone off colour.
Biggles - 8-Sep-18 @ 2:41 PM
This is the first webpage to come close to answering my questions about what size water Lilly I need for my "pond". We've got a large above ground pool that is no longer being swum in, and since it's on well water, hadn't been treated chemically in over a year, we put fish in it. Now I'm hunting plants to filter and oxygenate the water, and I'd like to add a Lilly. The pool is circular and about 22' across, and I can adjust the water level as needed. Ideally I'd like to be able to have it well stocked with various plants, I've already added some duckweed, and some other native plants I found in the creek. With the size I have, would large or medium sized water Lilly be better?
Darkness - 14-May-17 @ 8:31 PM
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