Nymphs of the Garden: The Water Lilies by Arslan

Nymphs of the Garden: The Water Lilies by Arslan is currently installed in the Stephen and Peter Sachs Museum; though the Garden is open to the public, the Museum is currently closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but the exhibition will be interpreted via several digital offerings coming soon. Please check the Museum site for updates.

This exhibition focuses on the Garden’s history and collections of water lilies and offers an aesthetic interpretation of the beauty of the Garden’s water lilies’ by artist Arslan, who was inspired by Claude Monet’s important series of water lily paintings, Les Nymphéas. Enjoy the artworks and specimens described here, and then make sure to find and delight in the water lilies as they grow and bloom in the pools around the Garden from May to October.

What’s in a Name?

Every summer at the Missouri Botanical Garden, the Garden’s collection of live water lilies take over all the pools and delight visitors with their colors, beauty, scent, and all of the wildlife they attract, especially insects (darting dragonflies and damselflies are a particular favorite!). Carefully shepherded by Senior Nursery Manager Derek Lyle, these live collections demonstrate the horticultural and conservation legacy the Garden has been developing for over 130 years. Appearing in the fossil record from the Early Cretaceous period (125–115 million years ago), water lilies adapted to aquatic environments and are rooted in soil in water, and the flowers and leaves emerge and float on the water’s surface. They belong to the group of basal angiosperms—a few evolutionary groups of plants that branched off from other flowering plants, which are an older lineage than monocots and dicots. 

Native to tropical and temperate climates, water lilies belong to the family Nymphaeaceae, which name is taken from the Greek word for mythical water nymphs, feminine nature spirits that presided over bodies of water. Nymphs were powerful entities, associated with healing and prophecy, and usually oversaw all the elements of human reproduction and fertility. While the name “lotus” may be applied to water lily species (and other plant groups), the two living species of true lotus plants in the genus Nelumbo are not directly related to water lilies; N. lutea is found in North America and the Caribbean, and N. nucifera is native to many parts of Asia.

The season’s last bloom of the Victoria water lily, Victoria ‘Longwood Hybrid’ shows off its splendid color against the dark background of the Central Axis Lily Pool.

Most water lily species have showy solitary flowers (some are fragrant and vibrantly colored) that are connected by stems to rhizomes (a stem system that puts out shoots and roots at intervals), and from which are connected petioles (stalks) that join the leaf (lily pad) to the plant. The leaves are round with a radial notch in Nymphaea and Nuphar species, but fully circular in the species of Victoria and Euryale

There are two types of water lilies: hardy and tropical. Hardy water lilies are able to tolerate colder temperatures. Tropical water lilies flourish in warm and humid climates, and they have either day-blooming or night-blooming flowers. One of the most well-known tropical water lilies is the one named for Queen Victoria, Victoria amazonica, which Garden visitors will find thriving in our heated circular central pool located in the Garden’s Central Axis pools outside the Climatron®. Heated pools enable a longer growing season in the extreme temperature swings in Missouri.

Derek Lyle and Kelly measure the width of a Victoria water lily, Victoria ‘Longwood Hybrid’ lily pad at 6 feet 9 inches.

As angiosperms (seed-producing flowering plants), water lilies produce pollen to reproduce, which needs to be cross-pollinated to create new plants. At the center of each water lily are the yellow stamens, on top of which are the anthers where pollen is produced. At the base of the water lily flower are the stigma and ovaries where seeds will form, once the plant is pollinated. Many water lilies take a couple of days to sexually reproduce. Once the bloom opens, there is a pool of fragrant liquid in the center of the flower covering the stigma. Insects who are carrying pollen from other water lilies visit in their search for the liquid, dropping the pollen and performing reproduction for the flower. After the second and third days, that flower’s pollen is released, and it attracts different pollinators who are in search of the pollen and bring it to other flowers for cross-pollination. However, for water lilies that are cross-pollinated under cultivation, such as in the greenhouses at the Missouri Botanical Garden, it is human hands that perform the pollination; in this case, Senior Nursery Manager, Derek Lyle!

There are a few different species of insects who perform pollination for water lilies, including beetles, honeybees, bumble bees, carpenter bees, and sweat bees; not all of the pollinators are able to represented in the Museum exhibition, but the ones found locally most often are featured. The insects most often identified with water lily habitat—dragonflies and damselflies—are not actually pollinators of water lilies. They take advantage of the aquatic environment to mate, feed, and find suitable places to lay their eggs. The Sophia M. Sachs Butterfly House provided all of the specimens and research on all of the insects presented in Nymphs of the Garden; make sure to visit them to see other wonderful insects and pollinators!

Tropical water lily, Nymphaea ‘Jack Wood’ and Dragonfly against the orange background of a Chihuly Walla Walla Onion sculpture and its reflection in a Central Axis Lily Pool.

A Collection Spectrum

The Missouri Botanical Garden has a talented team of staff who planned and captured much of the material throughout 2019 that you see on view in this special exhibition. Every year, much time and work are committed to care for, propagate, plant, design and display, and maintain the Garden’s live collection of water lilies. In spring, Derek Lyle, Senior Nursery Manager, orchestrates the cleaning and preparation of all of the Garden’s pools, into which are planted a wide variety of species and cultivars from the Garden’s collection that have been planted and propagated throughout the year in a special greenhouse outfitted with pools to store and grow the water lilies. Derek Lyle also stores and prepares the dormant tubers and seeds for future use, as well as for seed exchanges and seed storage in the Garden’s own seed bank.

Propagation tubs with water lilies used as backup plantings for the displays in the Garden pools, 2019. Photo: Tom Incrocci

In order to have new specimens on view for the exhibition, Herbarium staff Mary Merello and Lauren Peters organized and collected the water lilies as they were growing in the Garden’s pools during 2019 with the help of Derek Lyle and Steve Wolff (who also cared for the water lilies during his 50 years of service to the Garden before he retired). Mary Merello pressed and dried all of the vouchered specimens and then Garden’s plant mounters, Sally Bommarito and Rita Chiodini, mounted the dried plants onto the special herbarium paper and sewed them all in place to be ready for the exhibition display and afterwards for storage in the Herbarium. Volunteer photographer Tom Incrocci documented the entire process of work on the water lily collections in 2019 in preparation for the presentation of Nymphs of the Garden.

Mary Merello rearranges water lily vouchering specimens in preparation for drying the plant material.

The Missouri Botanical Garden has both live collections and herbarium specimens of water lilies from around the world, with several cultivars created and named here at the Garden in St. Louis, as well as rare species that are now extinct in the wild.

Several key people in the history of the Garden were instrumental in starting water lily horticulture and conservation on the grounds, establishing the Garden’s position as one of the key botanical gardens in the world. In the 1890s, Henry Shaw’s first head gardener, James Gurney (who had worked at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew as a young man), introduced water lilies to both the Garden and Tower Grove Park, where he also later served as superintendent. Gurney had worked with Victoria amazonica species while at Kew and developed the heated pools to allow for these water lilies to go on display and as part of the live collections in the mid-1890s. He also started hybridizing water lilies; Gurney worked at the Garden from 1867 to 1903. Later, Garden horticulturalist and superintendent George H. Pring started breeding water lilies at the Garden and introduced approximately 40 hybrid tropical water lilies during his lifetime; many of these cultivars can be seen in the Garden pools each year (usually in the Pring pool closest to Spink Pavilion!). Pring was instrumental in working with Longwood Gardens to create the Victoria ‘Longwood Hybrid’ that continues to be a part of the collection of Victoria water lilies. Pring worked at the Garden from 1906 to1963. 

James Gurney with Euryale ferox in lily pond, ca. 1890

A Global Phenom

Ancient cultures revered the water lily as a symbol of the afterlife and rebirth. Many water lily species are also edible (do not try this at home folks!) but they contain strong amounts of alkaloid compounds that cause altered states of consciousness and hallucinations.

The Maya civilization spanned thousands of years, encompassed much of what is now Central America, spoke over thirty languages, and worshipped hundreds of deities. The water lily has become one of the most recognized symbols in Maya iconography, having been found in both art and literature. The water lily depicted is most likely Nymphaea ampla, a day-blooming water lily with large white petals. The water lily is often included in artistic representations of the Netherworld known as Xibalba and with multiple gods; many gods are actually shown with water lilies as ears, including the Water Lily Serpent, Chahk (or Chaac), the Quadripartite God, and the Water Lily Jaguar. N. ampla was connected to the gods also due to its use as a recreational drug by shamans; this species is psychodysleptic, which induces a dreamlike mental state, and, in high doses, a hallucinogen. Both of these effects could be interpreted as visions or messages from the gods, leading to their association with the gods and other worlds. According to a researcher who actually ingested N. ampla, it also causes small muscle spasms, which shaman may have interpreted as “prophetic signs.” It is perhaps for these reasons that the water lily was not only included in depictions of the gods, but also found on clothing and headdresses of notable individuals, which may indicate a connection with the gods or a god-like status.

Nymphaea ampla (Dotleaf water lily)
Collected: Candelaria, Campeche, Mexico, May 17, 2000
Courtesy of the Missouri Botanical Garden Herbarium, 5674355

While they were commonly known as lotuses, the water flowers included in the art and literature of Ancient Egypt were actually water lilies, specifically Nymphaea caerulea and Nymphaea lotus. Both species are day blooming lilies, meaning their petals open when the sun comes out and close as the sun sets. This daily cycle is believed to be the reason behind the Ancient Egyptians associating water lilies with the sun, as well as the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth. Water lilies, especially N. caerulea, were so integral to Ancient Egyptian culture that there was a god of the blue lotus, Nefertem (sometimes spelled Nefertum), who was also the Egyptian god of healing, rebirth, perfume, and the first sunlight of the day; Nefertem rose from a blue lotus every morning and was a son of Atum, the creator of everything. The water lily became a common symbol across Ancient Egypt, and were depicted in multiple media including architecture, where they were sometimes seen on columns (often around the top or bottom) and could be found on the interior and exterior of tombs. Water lilies were also depicted in jewelry and totems, where they may have been worn to grant protection or good luck. The blue lotus was also ingested by the Ancient Egyptians, who may have viewed it as either a medicine or a recreational drug. While its use as a hallucinogenic has been hotly debated by scholars, using N. caerulea as medicine is more accepted, as many cultures used it to treat stomach problems, fevers, liver disease, and even erectile dysfunction. If the blue lotus was used as a drug, scholars believe that the Ancient Egyptians would have dissolved some in wine, leading to possible hallucinations and euphoric feelings.

Egyptian blue water lily, Nymphaea caerulea, in the Central Axis West pool, 2019. Photo: Tom Incrocci

Some of the most famous water lilies in art are those painted by French Impressionist painter, Claude Monet—an avid gardener—who became obsessed with water lilies in 1889, when he first glimpsed Bory Latour-Marliac’s hybrids at the Exposition Universelle in Paris. Latour-Marliac was a French lawyer and horticulturalist who founded a water lily nursery in Le Temple-sur-Lot, France, in 1875 to breed and hybridize hardy water lilies, and achieved his goal to successfully build a collection of water lilies whose palette ranged from delicate yellow to fuchsia and deep red. Upon seeing this collection of water lilies, Monet ordered them for his water garden in Giverny. In 1903, Monet started painting his newly expanded water garden and created more than 250 paintings of water lilies during the latter part of his career. Watch for a future post about Monet’s painterly and horticultural obsession with water lilies by Arslan’s curator and gallerist, Bee Tham.

Yellow waterlily, Nymphaea Mexicana, 2019. Photo: Tom Incrocci

Immerse Yourself in a Different Artistic Point of View on Water Lilies

The genesis for this exhibition at the Sachs Museum was the work of artist Arslan. Born in Dagestan and based in New York City, Arslan is a sculptor and painter, and his work often embodies both human and animal forms. He uses this perspective in his drawings and paintings to give immense texture to his canvases, and affect the physical space the paintings inhabit. Arslan’s series for this exhibition is directly inspired and influenced by the important painter identified with 19th– and 20th-century French Impressionism, Claude Monet. 

Arslan’s multiple series of artworks in the exhibition illustrate his inspiration and process in developing, drawing, and painting that culminate in the immersive installation at the Museum. Les Nymphéas: A Different Point of View is an art installation that was not only inspired by the world-renowned and splendid water lilies of the Missouri Botanical Garden, but also pays homage to one of art history’s great painters, Claude Monet and his water lily paintings, Les Nymphéas

In Arslan’s series Immersion, there are six large canvases that create a contemporary immersive environment reminiscent of Monet’s Les Nymphéas that are on view in the Musée de l’Orangerie in Paris, France. Immersion surrounds the viewer around the lower level gallery at the Museum, and depicts the multi-colored hues of water lilies and the pools and water they reside in. The reflections and light on the water, the clouds and mist that hover over them, and the greenery and vegetation that overwhelm the water offer cooling calm, fiery sunset, and the stillness of the night that a viewer experiences throughout the course of a day surrounded by water lilies and their environment. Arslan follows Monet’s course, painting layer after layer of color and detail onto each huge canvas. The details of the plants and pools draw your eye, but the integration of hues create an abstracted landscape and atmosphere that provide fodder for meditation and contemplation. 

The exhibit continues in the Museum’s South Gallery, thanks to lenders Barbara and Steve Brodie and Shyqeri Kuqi who worked with Bee Tham to provide two sets beautiful diptychs to the Sachs Museum exhibiton. Les Nymphéas: Mist et Clouds—lent by the Brodies—and Les Nymphéas: Reflections et Weeping Willows—lent by Kuqi—Studies is a series of preparatory work Arslan painted before committing to the large canvases of Immersion.  

Les Nymphéas: Reflections et Weeping Willows, Courtesy of Shyqeri Kuqi and The Bee in the Lion Gallery, NYC; Photo credit: Virginia Harold

Arslan has also shared a series of monotypes that present 48 images that impacted him during the creative process of planning the Immersion installation. This series called Sediments represents the diversity of Arslan’s oeuvre, his classical art training, his unique perspective, and the multitude of energy and elements that showcase his closeness to nature and focus on reality. These images depict all manner of daily life, showing glimpses of people and views into their lives. Flowers, trees, water lilies, forests, landscapes, emotional moments, stages of life from youth to old age, all executed with an incisive eye and experienced hand. The exceptional range of imagery creates a kaleidoscopic impact and reveal the poetry and humility of life that Arslan observes around him, transmuting mundane moments into contemplative and atmospheric engagement.

Les Nymphéas: Sediments, Courtesy of The Bee in the Lion Gallery, NYC; Photo credit: Virginia Harold

Nymphs of the Garden: The Water Lilies by Arslan marks the first exhibition at the Sachs Museum that features a collaboration with the Garden’s Horticulture Division (the Sachs Museum is a part of the Science & Research division) and showcases a key narrative that emphasizes the important horticultural, collections, and conservation work the Garden does, here in St. Louis, but also how that impacts the world of botanical research and conservation. The Garden’s talented staff and wondrous collections make it a natural source for art and inspiration, and to have an artist capture the beauty and awe of why we (and other humans long before us) are fascinated by water lilies. Curating an exhibition like this—in which botany, history, and art intersect—is one of my key goals for the Museum and the unique role it has to play in the Garden at large (for this subject and any other we choose to feature). And thankfully for those us who can enjoy the Garden in person, these plants are on view for us year after year. We look forward to seeing these botanical nymphs in the Garden for many years to come!

Nezka Pfeifer
Museum Curator, Stephen and Peter Sachs Museum


Grateful thanks to Deborah and Patrick Starke and W. William and Kelly Haines for their support of the exhibition, in loving memory of Dorris Bachman Haines Davis.

Special acknowledgments to all contributors to the exhibition: Arslan, Bee Tham, Derek Lyle, Tom Incrocci, Mary Merello, Lauren Peters, Sally Bommarito, Rita Chiodini, Fred Gauna, Tad Yankoski, Chris Hartley, Andrew Colligan, and Mike Blomberg; and installation expertise by Moira Smith and Rachel Lebo.

Particular thanks especially to the Sachs Museum interns who contributed to the research and text of the exhibition: Elizabeth Allison, Taylour Whelan, Sarah Peskar, and Justin Rulo-Sabe.

Leave a Reply