A visit to Peter Raven, director of the famous Missouri Botanical Garden here, has given me a chance to see once more, after many years, the the astounding beauty of their tropical waterlilies. It is an almost unparalleled experience to see these magnificent plants grown as they must grow them in Paradise, and as I have never seen them anywhere else.
You might think it would be crushing to see them so much finer than we grow them ourselves, but this is not so. It means only that we see our own plants with a renewed appreciation of the ideal beauty that is in them, even if we are not able to coax it from them always. There is one exception I shall mention later, in which anyone might be forgiven for feeling sheer envy (approaching fury), but in general it is a positive and uplifting experience to see them as they grow here.
The great consideration in growing these waterlilies to perfection is space for them to luxuriate as much as they will. There are two long rectangular pools and a vast circular pool. The rectangles are 82 feet 10 inches by 28 feet 4 inches, and 97 feet by 28 feet, and both are two feet deep, while the circular pool is 74 feet in diameter, and three feet deep.
By my calculations each waterlily is allowed 150 square feet. If the home gardener did it the St. Louis way, a garden pool 10 by 15 feet would hold one waterlily. A 4-by-6 garden pool would hold one-sixth of a Missouri Botanical Garden lily.
The circular pool contains six plants of the giant Amazon waterlily (Victoria amazonica). The leaves can each reach eight feet across, and the flowers appear about 13 inches across.
Each of the Victorias is allowed 700 square feet to grow in, a space 28 times the size of a 4-by-6 pool.
This is the main reason we do not grow waterlilies as well as the Missouri Botanical Garden.
But another thing to notice is that every leaf of every plant in the pools is nearly perfect. The minute a leaf ages and begins to discolor, it is cut off. Besides this, if any aphids appear they are dealt with promptly. Furthermore, the plants are given chemical fertilizers (they use pills) through the growing season so the plants, without being over-fertilized, are fed as much as they can take.
It is astonishing the amount of growth the waterlilies must make in the few brief weeks from early June. (Sometimes it is the second week in June before they are planted out, from small plants in the greenhouse; this may vary by the year, and they are only planted in the great outdoor pools when the water temperature does not fall below 70 degrees at night.)
In St. Louis, as in Washington, the water temperature may reach the 70-degree point by mid-May, but you soon learn there will be chilly weather the end of May or in early June in which the water temperature falls into the 60s, or even lower. If the plants are set out before this cold period, they will be shocked considerably. Some of them may stop growing completely, only to resume growth in mid-July, and some may just sit there with three or four small leaves and not grow even by the end of September.
So it is better and safer to wait till the first week of June at least, and to hope for hot weather then.
The most beautiful flower in the pools is the wild Nymphaea gigantea from Australia, which in St. Louis has flowers about a foot across, with seven of them open at one time, a lavender blue that deepens on the outer petals and is rather pale as you reach the center, where you find a great boss of thready yellow stamens such as you see in Japanese peonies. While taste varies, this must be the loveliest waterlily in the world.
The St. Louis plant grows from tubers sent by Dr. Caryl Haskins of Washington and Westport, Conn., but neither he nor I (for I have grown this marvelous plant a few years) has had anything approaching the success of St. Louis.
From the middle of August to the middle or end of September these great flowers are at their peak, and are worth a trip across the continent to see. We grow them very well here, but who has pools 74 feet in diameter? It is this lavish space -- and the restraint shown at St. Louis in not jamming in as many plants as possible -- that produces their spectacular results.
Of the day bloomers, the ones that open in the morning and close in the afternoon, I thought the rather old variety 'General Pershing,' was best, followed closely by 'Pink Platter.' Among the dark blues, 'Director George T. Moore' has no real rival, and it was as outstanding in St. Louis (where it was bred) as everywhere else. Among the light blues, 'Pamela' was outstanding, but there are many fine medium and light blues, of which 'Pennsylvania' or 'Blue Beauty' (it goes by both names) is best for most gardeners over the years, though newer varieties such as 'Bagdad' are fairly irresistible.
Allowing each plant so much room, not even St. Louis can manage all the fine waterlilies they maintain in their collection. Each year the varieties chosen for the outdoor pools will differ, and those not grown for display this year will nevertheless be maintained as small plants in the greenhouses and may be displayed next year.
The garden imports a truckload of good soil once a year, to provide the large boxes in which the lilies grow. One gets splendid results using half whiskey barrels of oak, but a box three feet square will give even grander results, but you use such large containers only when you have the space to give each plant 150 square feet of water surface. For garden pools you use things as small as half-bushel containers, and the plants and blooms are smaller, but still remarkable to see.
Of the night bloomers at Missouri this year the outstanding one was 'H.C. Haarstick,' a medium-dark red, and 'Sir Galahad,' a fairly new white, which was seen to be quite free-flowering. 'Haarstick' usually steals the show among the reds when it is given all the space it can use (it is an enormous plant, even by waterlily standards), but for garden pools the rose-red-magenta 'Emily Grant Hutchings' is better, not so large and I believe better behaved and tougher if a cold snap comes in June.
A newer red, 'Antares' is very dark red and lovely, but quite overshadowed by 'Haarstick.' Of course, some fine ones are not on display this season, such as the exquisite white night bloomer, 'Juno' or 'Dentata Superba' (it goes by both names), and the massive, unbelievable, white 'Missouri.' An old red variety, 'Sturtevantii' can be spectacular, especially if given a warm lake.
When waterlilies are grown to full perfection it may be pointless to try to rank them in beauty. They differ in number of petals, shape (some are flat, others are cupped) and so on, but it may be reckless to say one is more beautiful than another, except N. gigantea, which is indeed more beautiful than any other.
I suppose I should eat crow briefly on the matter of N. gigantea. The great authority Conard used to say (about 1900) it was almost impossible to grow in Philadelphia, and I fear I may have gloated (within bounds of propriety, I hope) over my great success with it for several years. Well, this year it has done so poorly with me (or I with it) as to be not worth growing. It is somewhat irksome to see it -- the same summer -- more beautiful in Missouri than any flower of the world, and especially annoying to notice their plant comes from the same stock mine does, so I can't say they had better tubers. Grrrrr.