Water lilies are freshwater plants in the Nymphaeaceae family. The name derives from Greek legends where “nymphs” protected springs and streams. There are about 70 different species of water lilies, divided into eight different genre commonly found in garden ponds and landscape features. The roots dig deep into the ground underwater, while the leaves or “pads” float on the surface. The petals of the flower fan out and can be found in many colors. The lotus is similar in appearance, but it belongs to the Nelumbonaceae family.
Recently, scientists announced the discovery of the fossilized remains of the earliest flowering plant. Found in northeast China, it’s at least 125 million years old and possibly the ancestor of all flowering plants in the world today. Its closest living relative may turn out to be the water lily, as the ancient plant lived in clear shallow water with its flower and seeds extending above the surface. Drawings in European pre-ice-age cave drawings have the same basic form as water lilies that exist today.
Early in the last century, white men discovered the large and fragrant flower in the freshwater lagoons of South American jungles. The natives called them Yrupe, meaning “water platter,” observing that they were resting places for frogs. The white men were amazed as they watched the flowers change color almost daily. Water lilies first came to public attention in England in the early 1800s, where water lilies flourished in the ponds and gardens of noblemen. Eduard Ortgies, caretaker to Joseph Paxton—gardener to the Duke of Devonshire—created the first water lily hybrid called Nymphaea ortgiesiano-rubra. In the United States, the first hybrids were developed by Edmund Sturtevant in 1876.
The white water lily common to North America is the fragrant Nymphaea odorata. The flower blooms in the daylight and gently close at night. Its commercial appeal has made it an “invader” that multiplies so quickly it can destabilize underwater ecosystems—natural ponds, rivers, lakes—posing a risk to native species.
Tropical varieties bloom during any time of the day or night, and the blossoms stay open until they fade, although some will open only in the morning or evening to attract pollinators. These lilies can be pink, yellow, red, or blue and there are many kinds that are hybrids. Water lilies only live in shallow and still water where the stalks can extend their fleshy rhizome tubers into the soil to take in and store nutrients.
The pads are heart-shaped and rounded. The upper side is water repellant and green, while the underside is purplish-red. The world’s largest water lily is the Victoria amazonica, native to the Amazon River basin. The first night it opens the flower is white, the second night it becomes pink, and the pads can be 10 feet in diameter with stalks as long as 26 feet.
The metal girders around London’s Crystal Palace during the 1851 Great Exhibition were said to be inspired by water lily’s rib-like cross-ridges.
In their art, architecture and hieroglyphs the ancient Maya depicted a water lily monster that linked the underworld with the surface of the water. It has been suggested that, because the presence of water lilies indicates the absence of toxic substances, their shallow reservoirs may have contained potable water. I was shown a pond in Belize about a half-mile wide that was covered with water lilies.
The water lily symbolized Upper Egypt. When combined with the papyrus flower, the symbol of Lower Egypt, they represented the unified country. With blooms opening in the morning and closing at night, waterlilies were associated with the rising and setting of the sun.
Specifically, the blue water lily was considered sacred. It’s depicted on Egyptian temples as a representation of the sun and rebirth. To ensure their resurrection, priests and rulers were often buried with necklaces made of these water lily blossoms.
In Buddhism, the water lily blossom is associated with enlightenment. Different colors have different representations. For instance, red connotes love and passion, the purple lily represents mystic power, white signifies mental purity and blue is associated with knowledge. Relative to enlightenment, the pink blossom is the highest. In the Hindu religion, the water lily is a symbol of resurrection. As with the Egyptians, they reference it to the flower’s opening and closing the day. Because the plant grows in mud but is free from blemishes, it’s also a symbol of purity. The white water lily is the national flower of Bangladesh and the state flower for Andhra Pradesh, India. In Sri Lanka, the blue water lily is the national flower. In the West, some contemporary brides choose waterlilies to adorn their bridal bouquets because they represents chastity and purity of the heart and soul. They can also symbolize eloquence or gracefulness.
The most popular use for water lilies is as an ornamental in garden ponds. Other uses include lotions that make the skin soft and smooth and reduce redness and swelling, an herbal extract to regulate insulin levels, promote liver health and regeneration and reduce pain from swelling. A poultice made from water lily roots can reduce painful swellings, boils, ulcers, wounds and cuts. A tea made from the roots can heal gums and is used as a gargle to reduce inflammation in the mouth and throat. And the same solution has been used as an eyewash. Native Americans used the tea to treat coughs, tuberculosis, inflamed glands, mouth sores and to stop bleeding. And a folk tradition suggests a mixture of water lily root and lemon juice removes freckles and pimples.
There is a caution, however. Scientists warn that water lily supplements should not be used by those who are taking medications or pain relievers of any kind used in the treatment of dementia, Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s disease and disorders relating to the central nervous system. Further, because of the lack of research about the plant, those who are pregnant or breastfeeding should not take water lily in any form.
French Impressionist painter Claude Monet (1840–1926) imported water lilies for his Giverny garden from Egypt and South America. The city council demanded that he uproot the plants before they poisoned the area’s water, but he ignored them and they became the main focus of his painting during the last thirty years of his life. Many were done while he suffered from cataracts.
According to one source, the water lily is a symbol of courage, of rising above struggles, being of great hope, aligning to our highest aspects including the beauty that emanates from within receiving guidance from above. Another says the flower represents purity of the heart. While these are excellent qualities, I’m drawn to the symbolism the ancients derived from the flower’s characteristic of opening at sunrise and closing at sunset. It calls to mind the paradox that although everything changes, there is a constancy in many of nature’s fluctuating systems. For instance cosmically, the length of the day determined by the earth’s spin, the length of a year based on its rotation around the sun and the seasonal changes that occur due to the tilt of its axis relative to the sun. Currently, cosmologists are reviving Einstein’s term, “Cosmological Constant,” because it improves the agreement between the theory of general relativity and observation that the expansion of the universe is speeding up and it contains mysterious dark matter and dark energy, neither of which are influenced by gravity.
Constancy is also evident in the interdependencies of all living systems, now referred to as the web of life—no longer “the food chain,” which ignores the interdependencies of ecosystems. From bottom to top—diatoms which are microalgae found in oceans, waterways and soils around the world, to the enormous honey fungus that covers nearly four square miles of the Malheur National Forest in Oregon—a balance is maintained in the process of all life forms consuming other life forms. But now, due to human interference within the web of life, the constancy of the whole system (planet and life) is in jeopardy.
In order for living systems (organisms) to function normally, they need to maintain internal constancy or homeostasis. In humans, this involves the regulation of blood sugar via insulin, the regulation of body temperature by the hypothalamus, constant vigilance by the immune system, regulation of blood pressure, balancing the pH level in the lungs and so on, all this despite fluctuations in every cell and in the external environment. In Science and the Reenchantment of the Cosmos: The rise of the Integral Vision of Reality, Ervin Laszlo illuminates the paradox—
The human body consists of a million billion cells, far more than the number of stars in the Milky Way galaxy. Of this cell population 600 billion are dying and the same number are regenerating every day—over 10 million cells per second. The average skin cell lives only for about two weeks; bone cells are renewed every three months. Every 90 seconds millions of antibodies are synthesized, each from about 1,200 amino acids, and every hour 200 erythrocytes are regenerated. In the span of a year, 98 percent of the atoms that make up the body are replaced as well. No substance in the body is constant, though the heart and brain cells endure longer than most. Yet the substances that coexist at a given time produce thousands of biochemical reactions in the body each and every second, and they are all precisely and almost instantly coordinated so that they maintain the dynamic order of the whole organism.
Considering the interacting masses of matter and gasses such as stars, planets and galaxies going on overhead, and the tiny-to-enormous life forms that live in the relatively thin biosphere of the Earth, there is reason to acknowledge and celebrate the fact that we are here, sustained by and engaged in the living planet as members of its body. And to really understand and respond appropriately to the message that ecologists have been preaching for years—and which for me is now displayed in the beauty of water lilies—that what each of us does to the Earth we do to ourselves.
The intelligence of life is constantly keeping us on course.
Jacob Israel Liberman
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