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Water-gardening Lessons from Longwood Gardens

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 West Hartford  See map

As the water lily expert at Longwood Gardens, Tim Jennings walks on water. Or rather, he stands on it, with a little help from the giant water-platter plants for which the Pennsylvania botanic garden is famous.

 Water platters “could play the starring role in a science fiction movie,” says an article published at Longwood’s website. “When the leaves first emerge they are rolled up tightly, exposing a network of supporting structures as well as the sharp thorns that cover all of the plant’s surfaces except the upper leaf. They unfurl and grow rapidly, often attaining a diameter of five or six feet in less than a month. Each plant produces one flower at a time. That flower, which looks like a giant magnolia blossom, blooms for only two nights, changing color (and its dominant gender) in between.”

 Given such qualities in just one genus, it is no wonder that Jennings was swift to join the ranks of gardeners seduced by water plants. His first rotation as a student in Longwood’s Professional Gardener Training Program was in water plants, and his horticultural heart never looked elsewhere. He is the senior gardener responsible for the outdoor water lily display, fern passage and rose house.

Jennings will talk about water gardening at the Connecticut Horticultural Society’s April 26 program meeting. It begins at 7:30 p.m., at Emanuel Synagogue, 160 Mohegan Dr., West Hartford, and everyone is welcome to attend. The fee is $10 (CHS members and students attend for free).

Water plants “are a whole different group of plants but when you get to know them, they’re like terrestrial plants,” in their growth and care, says Jennings.

His passion is evident as he ticks off the many attributes of planting in water. It’s a refreshing way to garden in summer. It attracts birds and other wildlife. It’s a fun hobby because of the ease of breeding the plants.

And such plants—cannas, taros and lotus, rushes and cattails, and, of course, the lilies whose colors range from the soothing, elegant pastels of the hardy forms to the brilliant purples, reds and true blue of their tropical counterparts.

Gardening in water doesn’t require having or building a pond. Planting whiskey barrels and other containers is a fine way to go, Jennings says.

If you become hooked and decide to grow a water platter, you, too, may be tempted to stand on the leaf. Just be sure to overlay it with some plywood or Plexiglass to help distribute your weight evenly, he says. The leaf's thin surface is designed to trap air and is as delicate as a giant waffle. 

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