Adoration of the Waterlily

In religion and in gardening, in art and lore, the waterlily (Nymphaeaceae) has long been revered for its beauty, with its vibrant yellows, whites, pinks, and purples capturing our eye and imagination.

Coming from the Greek word for ‘nymph’, nymphaia , the Nymphaea takes its name from the feminine divinity whose realms were springs, rivers, lakes and ponds. Adapted to shallow, muddy waters, waterlilies evolved into existence some 130 million years ago, and today around sixty species remain in the genus, though they have been bred into hundreds, thousands of different cultivars and hybrids.

Above: a bee enjoys himself in a Nymphaea, a Sacred Lotus in full bloom, and an up-close view of a waterlily’s golden heart.

The Ancient Egyptians revered the Blue Nile Waterlily (Nymphaea caerulea) as the sacred flower of the pharaohs, who, it is said, believed the flower emerged from a world of darkness carrying the Sun God, Ra, in its golden heart. It is also said that Egyptian priests used the caerulea to transcend into higher states of consciousness, thanks to a psychoactive chemical found in its radiant flower.

Above: a vibrant purple cultivar of Sydney Royal Botanic Garden, an insect meets his end, and a Sacred Lotus reveals its seedpod.

Today, the waterlily is adored by gardeners and artists across the globe. In the 19th century, Europeans became fascinated by its exotic allure, shipping seeds across oceans and building steam-powered greenhouses and grand crystal palaces to replicate its tropical homelands. Obsessed with their beauty, Claude Monet built his own waterlily pond in Giverny, northern France, to inspire his famed series, Water Lilies, containing 250 oil paintings of his beloved flowers.

Above: a Blue Nile Waterlily at Adelaide Botanic Garden, a yellow-tinged cultivar at Sydney Royal Botanic Garden, and the budding Sacred Lotus.

At the Royal Botanic Garden, lovers of the Nymphaea can find a number of varieties growing by the fernery and in the Lotus Pond, Sydney’s home to the Sacred Lotus (Nelumbo nucifera) for more than a century. Taxonomists determine that the Sacred Lotus is not in the nymphae genus, but rather it belongs to a genus of its own, the nelumbo, though it was once called Nymphaea nelumbo, thought to be a type of waterlily.

Regardless of where modern science places it, the Sacred Lotus has always been at the heart of Eastern spirituality. Buddha’s footsteps, it is told, bloomed with lotus flowers in his wake, while Brahma, the creator of the universe in Hinduism, is said to have emerged from Lord Vishnu’s belly button seated upon a lotus. Brahma then separated the flower into three parts: the Heavens, the Earth, and the Sky.

Above: some of the spectacular cultivars kept at the Sydney Royal Botanic Garden.

Nations too, adorn their identities with the flowers. Guyana names the Giant Waterlily (Victoria amazonica) its national flower, while Sri Lanka cherishes the Blue Waterlily (Nymphaea caerulea) and Bangladesh takes the White Waterlily (Nymphaea alba) as its own. Is it too naïve to think that if all the world’s countries flew flowers instead of flags as our national banners, then we might take on the same qualities they show? 

  • This post has been republished on the Royal Botanic Gardens website.

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