Water Lilies for Water Gardens

Giant Victoria lilies command center stage in any garden. 

Victoria Water Lilies

Victoria Water Lilies

The pads of Victoria water lilies can grow up to 8 feet in diameter and are rimmed with a raised lip.

The pads of Victoria water lilies can grow up to 8 feet in diameter and are rimmed with a raised lip.

Does your garden seem to lack a little drama? Maybe it could use a gushing water feature. A cool outdoor  living space? Maybe it just needs one jaw-dropping plant. Look no farther than the Victoria water lily.

With enormous leaves that can span up to eight to 10 feet across, this is not a plant for small spaces – or the faint of heart. But if you have room for two or three – actually, one should fit the bill quite nicely – here’s your ticket to garden drama.

These exotic and mysterious perennials discovered in the Amazon more than two centuries ago pack quite a punch. Leaves of Victoria water lilies emerge in early summer from submerged potted plants as thorny shells, unfurling as much as two feet a day. Once fully open and flat, their giant quilted pads can support the weight of a small child with the leaves' undersides covered in spines presumably to ward off munching fish. Their night-blooming flowers are equally bizarre, rising in late July or August as a tennis ball-size bud that starts out white and turns pink as it unfurls. Each plant produces about a dozen flowers until fall, each lasting about two days.

There are two species: Victoria amazonica and Victoria cruziana. The former has leaves whose undersides are burgundy; V. cruziana’s pads are a bit smaller with upturned rims. Both grow rapidly given plenty of heat and humidity.

Both of these species were discovered around 1800 in Bolivia, and in 1960, the two were crossed at Longwood Gardens in Pennsylvania to create Victoria ‘Longwood’, which, like most hybrids, produces even larger plants than its parents. Today, this drama queen holds court in Longwood’s hallmark lily pool garden and is one of many reasons visitors flock to this wonderful attraction.

Because of their enormous size at maturity, Victoria water lilies can be difficult to overwinter, so often their seeds are collected in the fall for starting new plants in greenhouses for the next growing season—when another act in this drama unfolds yet again.