What’s in a name?

by Rich Sacher
New Orleans, Louisiana USA

Click images to enlarge

Nymphaea 'Star of Zanzibar' 

I had an email from someone in China last year, offering to sell "named varieties" of hardy waterlilies, for twenty five cents each, minimum order of 1,000 plants. A big box store near me has some hardy waterlily rhizomes for sale at $9.95, packaged in boxes of peat moss, with color photos attached. A mail order nursery has a catalogue offering both tropical and hardy waterlilies for sale, at prices cheaper than most other mail order companies.

The one thing all of the above have in common is that they do not know and probably do not care about the names of the lilies they are selling. The Chinese claim they are selling named varieties ... but you get whatever they send you ... unlabeled. The big box packaged lily may show a bright yellow lily in its photograph ... but it may just as easily turn out to be a pink, white, or red flower when it finally blooms, name unknown. The mail order nursery I refer to above is one which is notorious for sending out misnamed waterlilies. They do not know and do not care about the accuracy of their plants’ names, and will often send out substitute plants, even if you specifically ask them not to. In the last order I received from them, 50% of the plant names were wrong! They did not even bother to respond to my letter of complaint.

So ... what’s in a name? In this case, plenty! Since the waterlily is usually the jewel of the pond, (and the most expensive plant, too!), there is a temptation among uninformed or unscrupulous suppliers to attach a well-known name to seedlings, or to plants of unknown origin. Thus, any night blooming lily with reddish leaves and flowers may be passed off as ‘Red Flare‘, which is a highly desirable hybrid in the trade.

N. 'Red Flare'
‘Red Flare’ is a premium plant, and is sometimes a little fussy about recovering from shipment. On the other hand, ‘Jennifer Rebecca’ is a red flowering night bloomer which is prolific in its blooms, and much easier to grow. The plants may seem similar, but they are definitely different hybrids. Which one is right for you? Are you a beginner who wants an easy variety? Or, are you a seasoned expert who wants the more difficult challenge? Without the correct name, there is little chance of getting the right plant, even after you have made an informed decision.

The correct name of a lily is also important so that the appropriate cultural information can be obtained. Some varieties are poor performers in certain climates; others are very heavy feeders; still others may not transplant easily. Differences in temperature tolerance, minimum day length required, resistance to disease, etc., are all factors that should be taken into account when you purchase a lily ... but you cannot do that if you do not have the correct name.

The hardy lily ‘James Brydon’ is a great red flowered lily for northern gardens, but its leaves and flowers will burn badly in the heat of the deep south. A reliable hardy red waterlily for the south is ‘Laydekeri Fulgens‘, a variety which blooms well even in the heat of our southern summers. How do you know if you have gotten the plant you ordered? It’s all in the name.  

N. 'Laydekeri Fulgens' >

If you have grown the same waterlily under the wrong name for several years, you may have shared some offspring with others ... perpetuating the error. Once you have grown a plant with the wrong name for a long time, it will be hard to convince you that your plant was misnamed all along. I remember a discussion with a dear friend some years ago ... she insisted that her white night blooming lily was ‘Missouri‘. That was the name on its tag when she bought it many years before. I asserted that it was ‘Wood’s White Knight‘. To settle the argument, I sent her the real ‘Missouri‘ ... once you have seen the real deal, you could not confuse it with any other plant. It cost me a plant, but I won the bet!  
So, what’s in this name? Well, ‘Missouri’ is a giant of a plant with huge flowers, but a shy, periodic bloomer. Most other white night bloomers will produce ten times more flowers in a season than ‘Missouri‘. ‘Missouri’s’ flowers are intermittent but spectacular. So, what do you want ... frequent blooms or fewer, spectacular blooms? Again, the correctly named plant will give you the plant you have chosen. 

N. 'Missouri'

There are now so many hybrid waterlilies on the market, that no one person can claim to be expert in recognizing every one. Honest mistakes are bound to happen. I have found at least one or two mislabeled waterlilies at every botanic garden I have ever visited, both in this country and abroad. At one of my favorite botanic gardens, a group of us from the International Water Gardening Society were gathered at the lily pond, and all of us agreed that the beautiful pink lily we were enjoying was mislabeled. It was gorgeous, we had never seen it before, but we all declared (too loudly, I suppose) that it was definitely NOT ‘Enchantment‘.   

With that, a voice boomed out behind us: "It damn well better be ‘Enchantment‘ ... we’ve been growing it under that name for over 20 years!" It was the curator of aquatic plants, Pat Nutt, the celebrated and respected waterlily expert at Longwood Gardens! If this mistake managed to get into his collection, it can surely happen to any one of us.

< N. 'Enchantment'

There will always be some hobbyists who claim that they don’t care about the name of the waterlily they are buying, as long as it is "pretty". There are some wholesalers and retailers who express this same sentiment. But as has been discussed, if you do not have the correct name, you cannot access the information you may need to grow the plant successfully. If suppliers really believe that the name of a lily is not important ... why do they attach the name of a well-known hybrid to their unknown plants? Honesty would dictate that the plant should be labeled "unknown hybrid" ... but that might not bring as high a price as a known hybrid with a proven track record. So, waterlilies are being sold and propagated under the wrong names not only because of honest mistakes, but also because of deliberate deception.   

With waterlilies now being shipped around the country and around the world, and with new hybrids constantly appearing in the trade, how can any of us know for sure that we are getting what we paid for? How can outright fraud be discouraged and brought under control? As always, it is the educated consumer who drives the market. As the hobby of pond keeping grows and begins to mature, more and more hobbyists and suppliers are demanding truth in labeling. Fortunately, we now have at our fingertips two valuable resources to insure accuracy in waterlily names.

The first resource is one that should be required viewing by everyone engaged in any form of water gardening ... the website Victoria-Adventure. Along with fascinating articles on many related subjects, this site has a photographic encyclopedia of hundreds of water lily flowers. The waterlilies are divided into a hardy section, and a tropical section, and they are listed alphabetically to provide quick views of almost any waterlily you want to see. These images have been provided by growers and hobbyists around the world, and provide a convenient way to compare your plant to the photos shown. On occasion, an image may be sent to the gallery and is later found to be in error ... in which case it is removed from the page. Constant updating and corrections make this site an invaluable world-wide reference for establishing the correct names of waterlily varieties. It is also the best place to introduce a new hybrid to the world! 

In addition to these galleries, there are other pages which present the hybrid lilies of various breeders ... with the images often being supplied by the hybridizers themselves. This affords great accuracy for the pictures presented, and establishes the origin for both the plants and their photos.

Our second resource is newer, and also internet based: Water Gardeners International. Free membership in the organization is offered ... all you need to do is sign up! A free WGI Journal is then available to members online, containing original articles by experts from around the world. This WGI Journal has become every bit as valuable as the Victoria-Adventure site, and provides articles of interest from contributors in more than 26 countries.

In January 2006, the first meeting of WGI was held at Dania Beach Water Gardens in Florida, and the WGI decided to address the problem of misnamed waterlilies through its Waterlily Certification Program, under the designation "Truly Named". Growers, wholesalers and retailers are invited to pledge that they make every attempt to sell only true-to-name varieties. Unknown seedlings or plants must be labeled as such. WGI monitors the program, and supplies Truly Named labels for the certifying members to use on their plants. These growers or retailers certify that they strive to sell only accurately named waterlilies, and the WGI furnishes them with promotional materials to this effect.


Because some mistakes are inevitable, participants in this program must be willing to make refunds or exchanges in those cases where they have sold an erroneously named plant. They must then correct the problem so it does not continue. Suppliers who fail to do so may be reported to the WGI, which will encourage compliance with the program. If that fails, the supplier will be removed from the WGI program, and members of the WGI will be so notified.

Although participation in this program is voluntary for the suppliers, it is the educated pond keeper who makes this program work. By insisting on accurately named plants, both hobbyists and retailers can drive the market toward this goal. As the idea has taken hold, it is advantageous to retailers and wholesalers to proclaim that they certify the accuracy of their plant labeling, which will promote customer confidence and loyalty. Participation in the WGI program is additional sales tool for them, and benefit both the supplier and the end customer.

Each of us involved in water gardening can play our own vital role in promoting honesty within the industry, even on an international level, by insisting on truth in labeling. We can help put an end to the theft of hybrid names, and the profiteering that goes along with it.

If any of us needs further proof that this is a serious problem, just ask any victim of identity theft, "What’s in a name?" Their answer will be: "Everything!".  

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