Chance Seedlings
The Good, the Bad
and the Ugly

by Charles Leach, Ohio USA
Images by Ruth Leach
Click to enlarge

Nymphaea 'Hickory Bend Ruth'
Detailed description in the WGI Checklist

The Good (Not the Bad and the Ugly)

I would like credit for creating an exceptionally good tropical waterlily – Nymphaea ‘Hickory Bend Ruth’ – but a bee flitting from flower to flower is probably responsible. Ruth and I have raised hardy and tropical waterlilies for a couple of decades. Before our hobby became a business, I tended to be somewhat casual with plant identification. If a sprout of a tropical waterlily seedling had red spots on the underside of the leaves, I called it ‘Shirley Bryne’, our only one like that.

A few years ago, I noticed two or three lilies labeled ‘Shirley Bryne’ displayed maroon streaks on the leaves, unlike any other variety then in our collection. That difference saved them from being composted along with the actual “Shirleys” to make room for new tropical varieties.

When those unique-leaved plants bloomed, they produced distinctive flowers as well. The very large, up to 8-inch (20-centimeter), lovely lavender-pink blossoms sported pink-tipped, bright yellow stamens. This alone guaranteed the new cultivar space in our collection. It produced an abundance of flowers, often four or five at a time. The pads became more beautiful with age, changing from green with maroon streaks to chartreuse or even gold with red streaks. Keeping flowers open until late afternoon provided a welcome bonus.

Having won a place in our collection, the new variety needed a name. I christened her ‘Hickory Bend Ruth’ in honor of my lovely wife. The non-viviparous ‘Hickory Bend Ruth’ produces fertile seeds and quite a few tubers. Planted in a 5-quart (4.7 liter) or larger container, “Ruth” covers a 5-foot (1.5-meter) diameter area with 12-inch (30-centimeter) leaves. However, she happily grows tub-garden size when planted in 4-inch (10-centimeter) or 5-inch (13-centimeter) containers. Unfortunately, her intense fragrance attracts Japanese beetles. You have to remove them often or else they devour the flowers.

Since Nymphaea “Ruth” joined our collection, we have watched for additional serendipitous arrivals and have tried our hand at hybridizing. Although our hybridizing efforts have produced nothing worthwhile, Mother Nature has created a few intriguing hybrids. Last year we wintered over several “Ruth” seedlings. Algae that we did not control well in outside tubs claimed most of them this summer.  

Nevertheless, a few with leaves unlike “Ruth” survived and bloomed. To our surprise, they stayed quite small, developed viviparous leaves, and bloomed very similarly to ‘Daubenyana’. Tentatively called ‘Itsy Bitsy Blue’, it grows much smaller than ‘Daubenyana’ and its more uniformly blue flowers contain fewer petals. I hope subsequent generations will also produce extremely dwarf plants. If size of the viviparous sprouts is any indication, this variety is what we seek. The plantlets are so tiny that they are difficult to handle and they easily succumb to algae.

^ Provisionally
N. 'Itsy Bitsy Blue'
An earlier incident with what we had hoped would be an extremely dwarf hardy white turned out to be simply a slow developer. That event diminished our optimism. We have had plants that stayed very small for a year or two before taking off. A "Pink Chrysantha" purchased last spring remained small enough to fit in a teacup until early fall. Even then it had a leaf spread of less than 10 inches (25 centimeters) but, assuming it is "Truly Named", I anticipate it will attain a leaf spread well over 24 inches (61 centimeters) next year. If 'Itsy Bitsy Blue' does not turn out to be the extreme dwarf we hope for, I will compost the plants. The world does not need a 'Daubenyana' wannabe to contaminate the gene pool.

^ Provisionally
N. 'Hickory Bend Cupid'

 This year, while selecting tropical lilies to winter in the greenhouse and sunroom, we noticed that a lily labeled ‘Paul Stetson’ had solid green leaves with sinuses so wide open that the leaves were heart shaped. Ruth, my wife not the lily, insisted that I bring it inside. It had probably bloomed outside. However, not until the lily bloomed in the greenhouse did we notice its flowers were purple tinted white. Being unlike any other variety in our collection, we call it ‘Hickory Bend Cupid’.

Its cup-shaped flowers open wide by the second or third day and consistently open the forth day. “Cupid” blooms very well in our sunroom with only a few hours of somewhat filtered sunlight. The flowers open extremely early. I do not know if it is due to the limited direct sunlight in our sunroom, but “Cupid” flowers consistently greet me at dawn. We have much to learn about “Cupid”. I will track it for several years. Given its unique leaf shape and early-opening beautiful flowers, I hope it will prove worth cultivating.

If you have more than one waterlily variety, keep an eye out for natural crosses. Even if you have only one hybrid variety, remember that seedlings are unreliable and vary widely. Odds are that natural crosses or F-something seedlings will not be worth cultivating. However, with a bit of luck you might discover something special.

The Bad and the Ugly (Not the Good)
When a chance seedling occurs, the nursery may unwittingly misidentify and sell it under the seed parent’s name. Last spring I bought a ‘Fabiola’ from Wal-Mart to see if the practically rootless piece of tuber with dried up sprouts would actually grow. To my amazement, it took off and was producing flowers by late summer. Instead of presenting the pink, medium-sized flowers I expected, it offered large blooms, starting out bright pink and changing to snow white by the third day. As I can find no similar cultivar, the plant might be a natural hybrid, unique and very beautiful. I plan to track ‘Pink Blush’ for a few years to see if it merits propagating.    

Provisionally N. 'Pink Blush' 

Too many other plants have failed to be the labeled variety. Years ago, I purchased a plant labeled ‘Attraction’ that produced white flowers. The same thing happened with two ‘Black Opals’ I purchased online last year. I have also received other mislabeled lilies including what looked like ‘Peaches and Cream’ instead of ‘Pink Sparkle’, ‘Pink Sensation’ instead of ‘Pink Sparkle’, and a tropical colorata instead of a hardy ‘Colorado’. The source responsible for the colorata-‘Colorado’ mix-up made the same mistake twice more with replacements even though we ordered in writing using product code and proper name.

The point I make, based on personal experience, is that mislabeling is common. Do not assume that a purchased or gift plant is properly identified unless the leaves, flowers and stems conform to official description and photographs. (See WGI Checklist.)

The nursery involved in two of the mix-ups blamed their supplier for the mistake -- a sign of the times. Deny responsibility; blame someone else. As garden centers and nurseries switch from raising their own plants to purchasing them from factory farms, many of which depend on seasonal laborers, mislabeling is more apt to occur.

Additionally, some sources sell varieties by the wrong name. You may have noticed names such as “True Fabiola” or “#1” and “#2" versions of the same variety in books. According to Perry Slocum, some species, such as Nymphaea micrantha, have crossed with other waterlilies so often that pure specimens may only exist in the wild. For three years, I have attempted to purchase true tetragonas, with tiny white flowers that have 8 to 13 petals, mottled leaves and a very small leaf spread as described by Slocum. What I have received appear to be ‘Walter Pagels’ with many-petaled pink-tinted flowers having a 30-inch (76-centimeter) spread of solid green leaves and very similar plants with non-pink-tinted flowers. I have given up the effort.

I write this based on my own personal experience to convey three points:

One, assuming there is more than one variety of waterlily in an area, potential exists for natural crosses, some of which may be worth propagating.

Two, carefully avoid seedlings from a hybrid variety labeled as a recognized variety (as evidently happened with the so-called ‘Fabiola’ from Wal-Mart). Since what seemed to be a floating chance-seedling was mistaken for an ‘Islamorada’, I label only viviparous plantlets identified while still attached to a leaf firmly attached to a known variety. While I may investigate a few intriguing free-floating plantlets or seedlings, I make no pretense of knowing their family tree. To reduce the possibility of propagating a chance seedling as a known variety, I divide only plants whose flowers conform to the description of said variety. I never use unconnected sprouts that might be seedlings.

Three, never assume that a purchased or gift waterlily is properly identified unless the leaves, flowers and stems are as anticipated. Flower color varies, but should come reasonably close to descriptions. Photographs of flowers help a lot, but colors shown can be misleading. Blue flowers can appear pink or nearly white. The color value of flowers shown in online catalogs and photo galleries vary from monitor to monitor. It is impossible to depict some colors on a printed page or on line. Colors that fluoresce, such as the fluorescent rose pink of ‘Mayla’ flowers, are impossible to achieve. Given the differing opinions, I have virtually given up using authors’ leaf-spreads as a guide for validating identity. The Encyclopedia of Water Garden Plants by Greg and Sue Speichert, for instance, says that ‘Chromatella’ has a 6 to 12 foot (1.8 to 3.7 meter) leaf spread while Water Lilies and Lotuses by Perry Slocum says the leaf spread is 3 feet (0.9 meter). Both books agree that ‘Peace Lily’ makes a 3 to 5 foot (0.9 to 1.5 meter) leaf spread and 3 to 5 inch (8 to 13 centimeter) flowers. Mine, however, that produce 6 foot (1.8 meter) leaf spreads and huge 8 inch (20 centimeter) flowers, evidently did not read the books.

With distribution of waterlily cultivators comes responsibility. Selling or giving away a lily of questionable origin as a known variety is like offering the pups of the chance mating of a purebred bitch that ran free at the wrong time as purebred. Carrying the comparison one step further, even if one or more of the pups from a chance mating looks like the mother, it is not a purebred and will produce mongrel pups. The following warning given on the Victoria Seed Request Form holds true for all hybrids:

If you cross a primary hybrid “with itself or other hybrids, it produces what are called F2 seeds. These are highly variable in their characteristics and unreliable. There is a danger that they will be mistaken for the real F1 hybrid or even the species after several generations. Not only may they be disappointing to the grower, but they also could make their way into breeding programs and corrupt the gene pool.”

I could not say it better. 

Editor’s note: Aquatic nursery owner Charles Leach sent us this potent message about the adverse connection between waterlily seedlings and waterlily misidentification. As more growers and retailers join the WGI Truly Named program and waterlily buyers limit their purchases to Truly Named plants, the heyday of waterlily identity theft can be relegated to the past.

I took an early retirement due to the globalization of the screen printing industry that I helped build. Prior to that I wrote quite a few technical articles for the Screen Printing Association. Since retirement this is my first attempt to write anything except a few nasty letters to politicians .

Given a choice of becoming a greeter at Wal-Mart, moving to China or getting involved in water gardening full time, I chose the last. Since then I have been digging pools and hauling dirt by hand instead of sitting behind a desk, in a car or on a plane, and the results are positive. My weight is down 40 pounds, my blood pressure is down 30 points and my mood has been anything but down. I'm doing something I love, with someone I love, and am pretty sure that water gardening will survive in this country and not be moved entirely to Asia.

Charles Leach
Hickory Bend Water Gardens & More  
Lynchburg, Ohio

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