While taking photos of the orangutans at Como Zoo the other day, I noticed they had quite a nice exhibit of a variety of water lilies growing in the ponds in front of the building.
Admiring the floral display got me to wondering how a plant that has its roots deep in mucky sediment along with the lower surface of its leaves completely submersed in water gets enough oxygen to grow such huge leaves and large, elaborate flowers.
Newly emerged flowers produce an enticing fragrance when they first open, attracting beetles, and some bees. Only the female stigma is exposed at this time, and the insects crawling around on its surface looking for nectar leave pollen collected from other plants to fertilize that flower. There might be so much fluid at the base of the flower, the pollen is actually washed off the insect onto the stigma.
But then the flower closes up, trapping insects left behind, and it remains closed while the flower’s anthers open and dump their pollen all over the trapped pollinators. Nectar and fragrance production stops, motivating trapped pollinators to fly away when the flower re-opens.
Pollinated flowers close again, and are pulled down under the water while seeds develop. Eventually the seed pod opens to disperse its ripe seeds to the mucky sediment, and the cycle begins all over again.
The life cycle of the Giant Water Lily is wonderfully described by David Attenborough in his video of The Private Lives of Plants — you can view a 4 minute clip from this by clicking on the link below (there may be a short, but annoying 5 second ad preceding the video).