The story behind artist Monet's great passion: water lilies

How to mimic Monet’s pond life: Cathy Thompson on a chance encounter and the artist’s passion for water lilies.

11 July 2020
Connexion uncovers the story behind artist Monet's great passion, water lilies, and shares advice on growing your own.Connexion uncovers the story behind artist Monet's great passion, water lilies, and shares advice on growing your own.
By Cathy Thompson

Water lilies, the inspiration of many artists

I’m no expert on water lilies – either growing or knowing them – but something that always piques my curiosity is the story of a good nursery. One of the most famous nurseries in the world must be the one that inspired Monet to plant – and then paint – his water lilies at Giverny. His inspiration was a bit of a coincidence. He was exhibiting at the Pavillon des Artistes in the 1889 Paris Exposition Universelle, which showcased the best of French innovation at the time, including the newly constructed Eiffel Tower.

Right next door, Joseph Bory Latour-Marliac had brought 17 water lily cultivars (11 of his own breeding) up from his nursery at Temple-sur-Lot, in the Lot-et-Garonne, and was exhibiting in the water gardens outside the Trocadèro – his innovative creation was the first hardy yellow waterlily, Nymphaea ‘Marliacea Chromatella’.

The rest is history – and, as is often the case with plant passions, the start of some fascinating friendships on a horticultural theme. Latour-Marliac was the first person to introduce coloured water lilies to the world, as a result of crossing the European native white water lily, Nymphaea alba, with a yellow species, N. mexicana (then known as N. flava). He introduced pinks and reds by cross-breeding with another North American plant from Cape Cod, N. odorata f. rubra.

Auvergne's Horizons Arts-Nature festival begins in July and features the works of a British artist. Take a sneak peek of her fungi-inspired artworks here

Preservation efforts

Lilies at Terra Botanica, Angers, France.
Lilies at Terra Botanica, Angers, France.

Monet ordered his first plants from Latour-Marliac four years after the exhibition, when he had finished constructing his water gardens in a newly purchased field. The nursery still has his original handwritten orders, and we can see that he chose the Mexican species, as well as two of Latour-Marliac’s own hybrids, ‘Laydekeri Rosea’ and ‘Sulphurea Grandiflora’. Delightfully, the nursery has preserved all correspondence from those early customers, and it must make interesting reading, because among their number were William Robinson, Gertrude Jekyll, Leo Tolstoy and the Vatican.

The nursery was handed down to Joseph’s daughter, Angèle (who married Maurice Laydeker), rescued in 1991 by Ray and Barbara Davies of Stapeley Water Gardens in England and, in 2007, came to rest in the capable hands of Robert Sheldon.

We do not need to imagine what the first nursery looked like, because old photographs are freely available on the nursery website (latour-marliac.com/en/content/category/4-history). Latour-Marliac grew his water lilies on a plot of land supplied with two wells, a stream and 14 springs. The water lilies were grown in elliptical ponds and cuttings were grown on for sale in round bowls, which look like earthenware cooking pots. One mysterious fact about Latour-Marliac’s hybrids is that all are sterile, a deliberate tactic that he hoped would stop others ‘messing’ with his personal breeding programme! 

Les Jardins Secrets have re-opened and we spoke to the owners. Virtually explore the gardens here and find information on reserving a visit!

How to grow water lilies

The most important thing about growing water lilies is to know the depth of your own pond and to go by your supplier’s guidelines as to the depth your chosen water lily prefers. The depth is measured from the surface of the pond to the mud in which the rhizome of the plant is growing. You can, of course, plant in baskets filled with a suitable aquatic growing medium as well, in which case you can play with the depth by raising the basket on bricks so that the plant floats on the water’s surface.

I would like to try them again, but was ‘bitten’ quite badly in the past – not by the plants, but by the death of my fish population from disease, which caused endless hours of agonising and wretched tears. So, I am nervous.

I would probably start again with the two that I originally planted, both known as ‘minis’, because they will grow even in a small tub, needing a water depth of about 15cm. I grew ‘Pygmaea Helvola’, with yellow flowers and brown-mottled leaves (most of the yellow cultivars have that striking leaf colouring, which presumably comes from N. mexicana). It is said that this one will grow in a goldfish bowl, but I cannot testify to that!

Lilies in Rennes, France.
Lilies in Rennes, France.

If I had water between 23cm and 60cm, I would go for ‘N. Laydekeri Purpurea’ (crimson purple), ‘Laydekeri Fulgens’ (crimson flowers), or light mauve ‘Laydekeri Lilacea’. For water between 30 and 90 cm deep, you are finally unleashed to try out Latour-Marliac’s masterpiece, N. marliacea ‘Chromatella’, the first yellow water lily cultivar. A renowned cultivar that is also included in this category, but did not come from Latour-Marliac stable, is ‘James Brydon’, with rich, dark coloured leaves and rose-pink flowers. Much loved, it is said to be tolerant of various water levels and part day shade (most water lilies want between seven and eight hours of sunshine per day).

When you go into even deeper water, you can begin to play with more original Latour-Marliac cultivars, just as Monet did, such as N. marliacea ‘Carnea’ and ‘Rosea’, both in a delicate pink, and the commonest in cultivation. But beware – since water lilies are best divided every three years or so to ensure they don’t choke each other out and continue floriferous, you will probably need ‘staff’ (or a big, brave heart) who are prepared to wallow around in the mud in order to please them. I can assure you that this kind of work is not for the faint-hearted!

Visit the nursery, now open with new sanitary measures (designated a ‘Jardin Remarquable’ in 2004) at: ZI Le Bourg, 47110 Le Temple-sur-Lot (Tel: 05 53 01 08 05). Website: latour-marliac.com/fr

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