FROM a stout, rooty stem, firmly anchored into the beds of canals, ponds and lakes across the country, the pure-white-petalled waterlily, Nymphaea alba, dots the water’s surface with its yolk-centred waxy stars. Opening as the morning progresses, they’re best admired in the middle of the day, as the flowers close up again with the receding sun.
It takes quite a lot of leaf area to build up steam in the plant and get it to flowering capacity. The flat, dinner-plate leaves are themselves attractive, being leathery green, sometimes revealing reddish undersides when they crumple at the edges. The stems of both leaf and flower will lengthen some 6ft–9ft through spring and early summer to reach the water’s surface, creating joined-up parasols that benefit numerous submerged creatures.
Beatrix Potter, always a keen observer of Nature’s goings-on around her, turned her observations of pond life into The Tale of Mr Jeremy Fisher, who makes use of a lily-pad boat from which to catch minnows, although he hauls out a prickly stickleback instead.
Regional folk names Potter might have come across include lady of the lake and swan among the flowers, but, for centuries, native waterlilies were enjoyed not just for their transient beauty but also as apothecaries’ plants, with extracted oils and distillations being applied in a range of treatments, tackling skin blemishes, sunburn and baldness among other things. KBH