A Splash of Color at McKee Botanical Garden

June is the peak month for water lilies, and McKee Botanical Garden is the place to see them in abundance

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The height of the bloom for McKee water lilies is in June, which coincides with the festival held to celebrate their beauty each year. Photo by Kelly Rogers
The height of the bloom for McKee water lilies is in June, which coincides with the festival held to celebrate their beauty each year. Photo by Kelly Rogers

Picture royal purple, soothing lavender, sunlit yellow, soft cream, and vibrant blue—all in the form of floating blossoms, and all reflected in the tranquil waters that surround them. This scene of ethereal beauty is very real, and very close to home.

McKee Botanical Garden is renowned for its water lilies, and these wondrous plants are the focus of the annual Waterlily Celebration. The event is held every summer when the water lilies are at their peak; this year it is on Saturday, June 17. That makes this the ideal time to look at why the water lilies are a special part of Vero Beach’s beloved botanical garden.

There are 80 different varieties of water lilies at McKee. Thus, visitors to the celebration will be treated to a spectrum of colors. Director of Horticulture Andreas Daehnick explains that lilies of the same variety are generally grouped together; if you see a group of blue lilies next to each other, you can conclude that they are the same variety, whereas a blue lily off to the side by itself is likely a different variety. The impressive tally of 80 includes distinct species, varieties within species, and hybrids. “They’re all labeled, but unfortunately, the labels are underwater,” Daehnick says wryly. Of course, he and his fellow gardeners are happy to answer questions about identification.

Blooming water lilies blanket the ponds inside McKee Botanical Garden. Photo by Martina Tannery
Blooming water lilies blanket the ponds inside McKee Botanical Garden. Photo by Martina Tannery

Water lilies can be found in climates from Egypt to Japan. So how does Florida fit in? Daehnick notes that McKee Botanical Garden has both tropical water lilies and “hardy” water lilies (that is, ones that can grow in northern climates). In the subtropical conditions of Vero Beach, either category can thrive, depending on the attributes of the specific variety. “What we’ve been trying to do over time is select and display the ones that are best for this region of Florida,” Daehnick explains. Of course, imported species are carefully managed so they do not overwhelm the environment.

For visitors to the garden during the celebration, the beauty of blossoming water lilies is obvious. But what subtler aspects will reward close observation? Daehnick recommends: “Look at the edges of the petals, the center of the petal, and the color of the stamen. Look for the details.” Also, take a deep breath and notice the fragrance. Different varieties of water lilies have different fragrances, “from jasmine to lemon to pungent.” At McKee’s Spanish Kitchen area, cut flowers of various lilies may be displayed during the celebration, allowing visitors to get close and breathe in deeply.

Which lilies are the favorites of the gardeners themselves? Nikki Wojtowicz, head of the aquatic gardening team at McKee, believes that may be an unanswerable question. “We usually go with ‘What’s your favorite today?’”

On some days, the favorite is the exotic jongkolnee—a tropical lily of Thai origin with white petals sporting pink or purple accents. Part of what makes jongkolnee so special, though, is that it calls for patience. Using poetic personification, Wojtowicz says, “She only blooms once every couple of years, and then she sleeps for two years. She never quits, but she makes you wait.” The idea of patience being rewarded expresses the philosophical depth that gardening can have.

Both Wojtowicz and Daehnick count the Chaz lily as a favorite. The Chaz is a hybrid that was developed at an aquatic nursery in Charleston, South Carolina; it won its develop-
ers the internationally prestigious Banksian Medal, named for the great English botanist Sir Joseph Banks. “Chaz is a large plant with beautifully mottled leaves. The bloom is very big. It’s a show-off—and I like that,” laughs Wojtowicz. The leaves themselves have a purplish hue, Daehnick notes, adding to its intrigue.

Another of Daehnick’s favorites is White Delight. Although it is named for its large white flower, “when it first emerges, it is yellowish, and then it turns white,” he says, making for a remarkable transformation. Also, it has an appealing fragrance, one reminiscent of lemon.

Gardener Nikki Wojtowicz looks forward to getting her hands wet cleaning out the water lily ponds. Photo by Kelly Rogers
Gardener Nikki Wojtowicz looks forward to getting her hands wet cleaning out the water lily ponds. Photo by Kelly Rogers

When it comes to appreciating the details of water lilies, a further part of Daehnick’s advice is this: “Notice the leaves.” One of his other favorites provides a great example of why that can be rewarding. “The Arc en Ciel is one of the original hybrids from the 1830s. The flower is ivory white, very simple, but the leaves are very interesting, with maroon and pinkish streaks.”

For the Waterlily Celebration, the garden will open early—at 8:30 a.m. This will allow visitors the opportunity to observe another special detail of water lilies: “They are light- stimulated, and they will open at different times of the day, changing with the shifting light,” Daehnick explains. Some varieties are night blooming, and although the garden is not open at night, visitors who arrive for the special early opening time may catch a glimpse of nocturnal blossoms lingering in the morning shadows.

What if your visit to McKee intrigues you so much that you would like to take a lily home? At the Waterlily Celebration, there will be aquatic plants for sale, including, of course, water lilies. Handouts with growing tips will be provided, and Daehnick encourages, “Ask questions when you’re buying a water lily.” He also recommends the website of IWGS, the International Waterlily and Water Gardening Society, as a valuable online resource.

Artists who enjoy painting en plein air flock to the celebration to paint the gorgeous water lilies
Artists who enjoy painting en plein air flock to the celebration to paint the gorgeous water lilies.

It is important to consider the environment you would be taking your lily home to, Daehnick explains. “Even a ‘small’ water lily can still be three to four feet across,” although, as with dogs, there is a difference between “small” and “miniature.” Thus, if you are going to raise your lily in a container, “you want the biggest container possible.”

However, it is essential that you avoid simply planting a water lily in a neighborhood lake or pond. “They can spread and take over,” Daehnick warns. “I don’t recommend that at all.” The best environment to plant a water lily is in a separate, private pond that is lined—“a pond that you have made for water lilies.”

Another word of caution concerns the seemingly classic pairing of lilies and koi fish. “Remember that koi are vegetarians. They like water lilies for a different reason than you do. Yes, koi look good with water lilies, but they don’t necessarily get along.”

The McKee ponds are cleaned regularly by garden staff. Weeds are removed daily along with duckweed and blooms that have died off. Photo by Martina Tannery
The McKee ponds are cleaned regularly by garden staff. Weeds are removed daily along with duckweed and blooms that have died off. Photo by Martina Tannery

At the celebration, you will also see easels set up by the ponds, with artists painting the blossoming lilies. This is in the tradition of the great Impressionist painter Claude Monet, who pioneered the technique of working en plein air, finding inspiration from immersion in nature. Monet had a profound love of water lilies, planting exotic and colorful varieties in his gardens at Giverny. With his love of color, reflections, and flowers, Monet found his lily pond to be a source of boundless and ever-renewing inspiration, and he painted the water lilies there hundreds of times. No doubt he would have been fascinated by McKee Botanical Garden!

There is indeed much to explore at the Waterlily Celebration. “This is the height of the bloom, and it lets people see the lilies at their heyday,” says Wojtowicz. “I really hope they enjoy the abundance of it, but also that they have some version of it in their daily lives” by making a small pond for water lilies at home. “It’s very comforting,” she says. With their vibrant colors and stunning varieties, water lilies certainly do bring comfort and joy.

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