THE EGYPTIAN BLUE WATERLILY

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Top picture: A nineteenth century hand-colored engraving of the Egyptian Blue Waterlily Nymphaea caerulea.

Middle Picture: A photograph of the blue waterlily.

Bottom Picture: A wall painting of an ancient Egyptian garden from the tomb of Nebamun from the New Kingdom Period, about 1350 B.C.

THE BLUE EGYPTIAN WATER LILY

 

The blue water lily is native to the Nile River delta and Nile tributaries.  It is truly an heirloom plant as it has been known for more than 4,000 years.  Representations of the blossoms appear in Old Kingdom Egyptian paintings and carvings of the period 2686-2181 B.C. and are depicted in Egyptian art through the Roman period to about 400 A.D.  A wall painting from the New Kingdom period from the tomb of Nebamun dating to 1350 B.C. shows an Egyptian garden with date trees, grape vines and a square pool filled with fish and flowering blue water lilies.  Presumably, the gardener either moved wild plants into the garden or started them from seed. The painting is evidence that blue water lilies were cultivated in gardens 3,360+ years ago.

Sometimes the blue Egyptian water lily is referred to as the “blue lotus,”  but this is incorrect; lotus belong to the genus Nelumbo, while the true Egyptian water lily known to the ancients is Nymphaea caerulea, a true waterlily.  

The ancient Egyptians regarded the blue water lily as a symbol of creation.  In the ancient mythology, the blue lily was the first object to emerge out of chaos.  It was associated with the sun god, Ra, who emerged from the blossom in morning and retreated to it at night.  This parallels the habit of the flowers, which open in the morning and close in late afternoon. The ancient Egyptians cut blue lily flowers and wove them into wreaths, garlands and necklaces and to be placed in tombs.  King Tutankhamun’s body was covered with blue lily blossoms when his tomb was opened in 1922. In tomb paintings from Old Kingdom period until the Roman period we see people wearing, carrying and sniffing the flowers. Indeed, the flower is very fragrant, with a heady, rich scent unlike the aroma of any other.  

Another interesting attribute of the Egyptian blue water lily is that it has psychoactive properties.  The flowers contain apomorphine, nuciferine, nupharine and nupharidine, plus alkaloids. There is an ongoing contemporary conversation among archaeologists as to whether or not the ancient Egyptians new of the mildly narcotic effects of the blue lily. It is probable that they did, because lily flowers are often shown (in ancient Egyptian paintings and carvings) with symbols for poppies and mushrooms, both psychoactive plants. In pictures and carvings blue lily blossoms are shown sitting on top of and twined around wine jars.  The effects from consuming tea made from boiled flowers or wine in which these flowers have been soaked are mildly sedative, mood-enhancing and euphoric. Many ancient civilizations or cultures used various herbal substances in ritual, initiation, and other ceremonies.

Today, the blue Egyptian water lily is a critically endangered plant in its original, native habitat of the Nile delta.  The decline of this beautiful native plant is due to pollution from nitrogenous fertilizers and phosphates combined with the changed flood effect of the Aswan Dam, which has reduced the seasonal cycle of the river’s inundation.  The annual flood brought with it new, fresh soil and clean water. Organic agriculture over a period of more than 4,000 years preserved the habitat of this plant, but the use of modern chemical fertilizers and the effects of the dam have brought it to near extinction just since the mid 1960s.  A few nurseries in the world today grow plants of Nymphaea caerulea today and a few offer seeds.  If you plan to purchase seeds, read the description carefully.  Another species of Nymphaea, the South African blue waterlily, N. nouchali var. caerulea (N. capensis) is sometimes confused with the true Nymphaea caerulea.  

I have grown Egyptian blue water lilies from seed and from purchased rhizomes.  I grew the plants in large tubs in the desert climate of Palm Springs, California.  Nymphaea caerulea is considered a tropical water lily, hardy in USDA climate zones 10-12, or anywhere Citrus are grown.  Plants grow in still, warm water of at least 70 degrees F.  

If you purchase plants, pot them in a moderately rich organic loam and clay soil mix in a lily crate (a webbed type of pot) about 12” x 12”.  Place the rhizome at a 45 degree angle but with the growing point slightly above the soil level. Mulch the pot with about ⅓ to ½ inch of pea gravel, to keep soil in and keep water clear.  Place the pot so it is in at the very least 9-12 inches of water, but no deeper than 16 inches over the rim. Add oxygenating plants and an air pump if desired, to keep water fresh. Fish, especially small ones, can be kept in the same large tub or pond.  They will eat mosquito larvae if they appear. If you do not have fish, you will need to check frequently for mosquito larvae and use mosquito rings (Bacillus thurigensis israeliensis) to control them.  It appears from ancient wall paintings that the Egyptians kept fish in their ponds with the blue lilies.  The leaves of the blue lily float on the surface of the water, while the flowers are held above water on stems.  Flowers can be cut and will fill a room with fragrance. A few drops of candle wax will keep the flowers open, if dropped around the stamens.

To start Nymphaea caerulea from seed place seeds in a low bowl with sand in the bottom in a warm, sunny place (or under lights 14 hours each day).  The optimum water temperature for germination is 73 to 81 degrees F. As with many species of plants, seed germination rates vary.  I have had seeds germinate within a week, or had them take as long as 4 weeks. Grow your plants on in water until about 2 inches tall, then pick them up by the leaf and pot them into 3 inch pots in a mix of 1 part loam to 1 part clay.   Pure clay cat litter without anything added makes a good clay element for the soil mix. The depth of water over the leaves has to be gradually increased as the plants grow. When stems stick out of water 2 or 3 inches re-pot again into 6 inch pots with about 4 inches of water over the rim by now.  As the plants grow, the depth can be increased to between 12 inches and 16 inches. The plants grow and bloom best in full sun, with afternoon shade in the desert in summer, when the temperature is over 105 degrees every day.

As the blue waterlily is a tropical plant, it will need to be lifted in fall, before first frost. Put the pot in a dark, cool place that will not freeze. A dark basement 50 degrees to 60 degrees F. is excellent.  Let the pot dry for several weeks, then carefully remove the rhizome and wash it.  Place the rhizome in damp sand or peat moss and keep it in the dark in the same temperature range until spring.  The rhizome can be re-potted in a fresh soil mix before planting out again in a pond, pool or large tub with water at least 70 degrees.

I found the Egyptian water lily to be a well-adapted plant here in the low desert.  I attempted to grow true lotus, Nelumbo species, but it resented the desert’s alkaline soil and water.   But the blue water lily of Egypt, Nymphaea caerulea, is adapted to the heat and alkalinity and thrives in those conditions.  

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