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Water Lily
Nymphaea sp.

pink flower and leafWater Lily flowers are wonderfully showy and fragrant, lasting only a few days. Some open during the day and close at night, others the opposite. Most are pollinated by beetles.

The Fragrant Water Lily (Nymphae odorata) has a unique pollination strategy. On the first day that the flower blooms, its pollen is not yet released, and instead, a fluid fills the centre of the flower, covering the female parts.
Mangrove and wetland wildlife at
Sungei Buloh Nature Park
Main features: Water plant with leaves that float on the surface.

Leaves: Circular with serrated edges, green above, purple below.

Flowers: Solitary, colourful, fragrant.
purple flower
Fruits: Spongy round berry, lots of edible seeds.

Status in Singapore: Commonly cultivated in parks.

World distribution: Worldwide.

Classification: Family Nymphaeaceae.
Should an insect visit the flower, the design of the petals causes it to fall into the fluid. If the insect is covered in pollen, the pollen dissolves in the fluid and fertilises the flower. The next day, no fluid is produced, and pollen is released instead. The insect that falls into the fluid usually emerges unharmed, although a few unlucky ones may be trapped and drown.

A few days after the Water Lily flower is pollinated, the flower stem tightens in a spiralling spring to bring the flower head underwater. The fruit develops underwater into a spongy berry with many seeds that are enclosed in arils. When ripe, up to 2,000 seeds are released from each fruit. Young seeds float as they contain air pockets. They are then dispersed by water currents or by water birds that eat them. As they become waterlogged, they sink into the mud to germinate. The plant also spreads by sprouting from the creeping rhizomes.

The flat round leaves have a waxy water-repellent upper side. The underside, however, seems to cling to the water by surface tension. Some Water Lilies leaves are purple underneath, the pigments helping to concentrate the sunlight to maximise photosynthesis. The leaf stem is hollow and transports air from the surface to the underwater rhizomes which can grow to a massive size. Water Lilies grow best in calm freshwater.

Uses: The American Indians made flour out of dried roots by pounding them. The flour was then baked into pancakes. The young leaves and flower buds were eaten as vegetables, seeds eaten fried.

bittern in a patch of water liliesTraditional medicinal uses: American Indians used the plant to treat many ailments. Mashed green roots were used as poultice for swollen limbs; the roots for problems of the womb, digestive problems, a rinse for mouth sores; leaves and flowers as cooling compresses.

Role in the habitat: The Water Lily's leaves shade the water keeping it cool and thus allowing for more dissolved oxygen. The plant also provides hiding places for small aquatic creatures, which in turn attract predators such as Bitterns (see right). But in places where it has been introduced, the Water Lily can become a weed and blocking out sunlight and oxygen from the water and displacing local aquatic plants.

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  • Science Club, River Valley High School, "A Guide to the Flora and Fauna of Schools in Singapore", Hillview Publications, 1991 (p. 67: description, habits, habitat, photo).
  • Peter K L Ng (ed.), "A Guide to Freshwater Life in Singapore", BP and Singapore Science Centre, 1991 (p. 54-55: details and photos of some Nymphaea species).
  • Dr R S Bhathal and Foo Tok Shiew, " A Guide to Pond Life", BP and Singapore Science Centre, 1981 (p. 37: snippets and drawing).
By Ria Tan, 2001