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Discover the show-stopping Nymphaea 'Arc-en-ciel'

Sam Crosfield
14 January 2011
Blog team: 
Find out about the show-stopping, psychedelic and truly unique waterlily, Nymphaea 'Arc-en-ciel', which is grown in the aquatic zone of the Tropical Nursery and displayed to the public in the Princess of Wales Conservatory.

Nymphaea ‘Arc-en-ciel’ is an unusual day-blooming waterlily. Its multi-coloured leaves range from mid-green, to pink and dark red, often looking like it has been ‘tie-dyed’. Several waterlilies have blotches, but this is the only one that is variegated in this distinct way.

The colourful, marble- patterned foliage of Nymphaea 'Arc-en-ciel' (Image: Perry Slocum)

'Nymphaea' is Greek for water nymph and 'Arc-en-ciel' is French for rainbow (literally 'Arc in the sky'). This waterlily has broadly ovate to rounded floating leaves which can reach 25 cm in length and 12 cm across. It has a distinct cleft at the base of each leaf. Nymphaea ‘Arc-en-ciel’ produces white to pale pink star-shaped flowers, with yellow stamens. This unscented, hardy cultivar is considered to be relatively slow growing; an excellent plant choice for a small, sheltered pond or even for an indoor pool.

History of Nymphaea 'Arc-en-ciel'

Nymphaea 'Arc-en-ciel' (Image: Kit Knotts)

Little is known about this cultivar (particularly in terms of its parentage). Indeed, it was thought to have disappeared from cultivation. That changed when waterlily enthusiast Philip Swindells came across one that had no label while visiting Denver Botanic Gardens. He correctly identified it as Nymphaea ‘Arc-en-ciel’ as he had seen it a decade earlier in Europe before it disappeared.

Nymphaea ‘Arc-en-ciel’ has added significance as this waterlily, like many others, is inextricably linked with Joseph Bory Latour-Marliac (1830–1911). Marliac was one of the first to hybridise waterlilies, opening his French nursery in 1875. He introduced many new colours and forms. Sadly, Marliac’s ‘secrets’ of hybridising died with him, but he developed about 70 first-class Nymphaea hybrids, many of which are still popular, such as Nymphaea ‘Marliacea Rosea’, N. ‘Marliacea Chromatella’ and N. ‘Marliacea Carnea’.

In 1889, Marliac presented his collection to the World Fair of Paris; the same year that the Eiffel Tower was completed. Installed in the water gardens in front of Le Trocadéro, his hybrid waterlilies caused a sensation and won first prize in their category. They also caught the eye of impressionist painter Claude Monet. The exhibition inspired him to create the water garden in Giverny, as well as around 250 of his trademark oil paintings.

Cultivating Nymphaea 'Arc-en-ciel'


Waterlily tanks in the aquatic zone of the Tropical Nursery (Image: RBG Kew)

N. ‘Arc-en-ciel’ has been growing in the aquatic zone in the Tropical Nursery in tanks that are heated to 21˚C. Above the tanks are supplementary lights which not only increase the light levels in the zone but can also extend the day length. The temperature of the zone ranges from a minimum of 18˚C to a maximum of 22˚C. The evaporation from the tanks keeps the humidity in the zones quite high. The waterlilies are potted into loam. Crocks are used at the base of the pot and then topped with grit, which prevents the loam from escaping when submerged into the water. This cultivar is propagated by dividing the plant.

N. ‘Arc-en-ciel’ has been on display to the public in the small pond on the west side of the Princess of Wales Conservatory.

- Sam -


3 March 2011
Wonderful leafs! I want to by one! We have a private collection of plants in main Pinus and Acer jap. This Nymphea woul be the eyecatcher in our Showgarden!( Maybe the first in Vienna!)
Abuse Reported. Comment will be reviewed and removed if necessary.
23 January 2011
Thanks for your comment Paul. If you like taking photos at Kew Gardens, you might be interested in joining us on Flickr. We love to see photos taken by visitors -
Abuse Reported. Comment will be reviewed and removed if necessary.
23 January 2011
Already pencilled in at least 1 visit, went twice last year and managed to take hundreds of photos. Always a enjoyable day wandering around the different areas and don't forget the small glass house where they also have some on show.
15 January 2011
Comment: here for psychedelic plants...

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