A few things make summer in the burning plains tolerable. Obvious favourites are mangoes and ice golas, swimming at dusk in a pool emptied of noisy children, the gold pendants of the laburnum, and the fragrance of khus and gil. Gil, also known as sondh, is a fragrance beloved in the subcontinent – it is released by the baking earth soaked with respite by a brief summer shower, and now comes in a perfume bottle.

Like gil, all that offers glimpses of watery vistas in a parched summer is pleasing to the senses. This explains the new passion making its presence felt through urban gardens in Delhi: the presence of small, placid lakes full of water lilies. A striking flower whose beauty and habitat cool the eye, dulled by sights such as the singed lawn or the dust-laden leaves of May.

Water lilies are evocative of Chinese scroll paintings and Egyptian folklore which reveres the blue, night-blooming version of this flower as a symbol of reincarnation. Lilies are known to festoon the surface of ditches dried out in summer, made liquid after rains, giving life to tubers hibernating in the dirt at the bottom. The same phenomenon is witnessed in many of India’s coastal villages though here, lilies are rarely blue in the wild. Pink and white lilies are the most common, while the ones in Kashmir are most often yellow.

Blue Suwana. Credit: Manish Kumar

In Delhi’s urban gardens, water lilies have found a natural home. They bloom most profusely during summers in North India (when several other, less sturdy flowers are known to perish), and are the perfect water plant for a novice gardener. Unlike lotuses, they do not require deep water. Depending on the variety, they can even be grown in shallow plastic pots which are just 18 inches in depth. Unlike the lotus, their leaves float flat on the water’s surface. Water lilies require no turbulence in the water and need sunlight for at least six hours.

For those who have lawn space, a reed-edged miniature pond is not hard to add. But water lilies can also be grown in cemented tubs on balconies and terraces, as long as one takes precautions like making sure to place very large tubs over load-bearing columns or beams. Water adds a dynamic element to any garden, on the terrace or in a lawn, attracting song birds and red-backed dragon flies which mate in mid-air, koi carp and snails which shelter under the umbrella-like shade of the water lilies’ circular leaves. Cool mornings will bring a swarm of butterflies.

Colorado water lilies. Credit: Manish Kumar

The flowers are available in two types – hardy and tropical. The latter includes the viviparous type, where propagation occurs from leaf nodes. The former are easy-care varieties and are perfect for the week-end gardener. Most Indian gardens other than hill-stations are suited to tropical varieties as well, which do not do well in winter, in areas where the water freezes over. These are all grouped under the genus Nymphaea, and are further divided into named varieties according to colour.

Once the first water lily blooms, the thrill can be very addictive. The Impressionist Claude Monet was a gardener first before he was an artist – his aquatic garden with the Japanese bridge in the French village Giverny is world-renowned. Monet diverted a tributary of the Seine to create a garden inspired by the Japanese prints and wood cuts which he collected. In a large tract of land facing his home, he imported water lilies from Egypt and South America. The residents were so stunned by the exotic flowers they thought the water in his garden was poisoned, and so all the water that flowed downstream must be poisoned too. They tried to force him to dry out his garden and desist from growing water lilies, but Monet ignored their protests, painting his series of more than 250 oil canvases, all inspired by the aquatic beauties which surrounded him.

Here are some simple instructions for growing your own water lilies:

  1. Water lily tubers are available in many nurseries which stock water plants. Water lilies require plain garden soil, with a layer of sand on top, and absolutely no organic fertiliser, such as cow-dung, vermicompost or leaf mould. Organic fertilisers generate a lot of algae, and this will multiply so fast that the water will become slime green in a very brief time. The hardy water lily tuber/rhizome is planted along the edge of the pot with the growing tip protruding out. Planting along the edge will give the tuber plenty of space to grow. Tropical varieties have more luminescent colouring and are generally propagated through vertical growing tubers. These should be planted at the centre of the pot.
  2. This is the inner pot, which should be submerged gently into the larger tub/pool of water (choosing a small inner pot will facilitate eventual re-potting, or the adding of fertilisers). The inner pot should have a top layer of sand on the surface of the normal garden soil, which will help keep the water clear, because the sand will act as a barrier, keeping the water from turning muddy. Hard water is not good for your lilies. As soon as new leaves begin to sprout, you can add some slow-release fertiliser deep within the inner pot. A good substitute is a few grams of Diammonium phosphate or DAP, as most nurseries know it, wrapped in tissue. This helps in healthy flowering.
  3. If the plant’s tip is too small, raise your inner pot closer to the surface by placing it on a brick, and remove the brick once the leaves grow enough to float on the surface of the water. It is also perfectly safe to lift out the inner pot to change the water. Occasional re-potting is required when tubers multiply. The top 20% of water should be refreshed with a hose pipe occasionally.
  4. Mosquitoes, a serious concern for many, can be kept under control by adding fish to the tank or tub of water. Mollies are best for small spaces, and koi carp thrive in larger ones. Fish will also add a lively element to a water garden and are easy to keep. In single pots with no space for fish, refresh the top layer of water often to prevent mosquito larvae from maturing. But if planting your lilies in a larger water body, keep them far away from other the turbulent waters of fountains or waterfalls.
  5. If you are planting different coloured water lilies together, make sure the roots of each variety are contained in individual inner pots, or one dominant colour such as yellow, will strangle the other varieties.

Selina Sen is the author of Gardening in Urban India, published by DK Random House.

The author's fish pond with Koi carp and Colorado lily. Credit: Anuradha Chaturvedi
Credit: Manish Kumar
Krishna Kamal. Credit: Manish Kumar
Hardy yellow water lilies. Credit: Manish Kumar
Madame Wilfrome. Credit: Manish Kumar
Mymphea Mamew. Credit: Manish Kumar
Wanvisa Buddha with variegated leaves. Credit: Manish Kumar
Purple tropical. Credit: Manish Kumar