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What are Water Lilies?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Water lilies are aquatic plants frequently found along the edges of ponds, lakes, and streams. They have distinctive large rounded leaves or lily pads and flowers that can be white, yellow, or pink. In addition to proliferating in the wild, these plants are also grown in personal pleasure gardens and small water pools all over the world. The broad flowers typically have many almond-shaped petals, although no fewer than six, along with six stamens.

There are over 70 species in the Nymphaeaceae family, which includes water lilies, and they are found widely distributed on many parts of the planet. The plants are also ancient, and appear in numerous examples of art from antiquity, suggesting that they were prized for their beauty thousands of years ago just as they are today.

Pink water lilies.
Pink water lilies.

There are three basic types of water lily: night, tropical, and hardy. As the name would suggest, night lilies bloom only at night, and close up when the sun rises. Tropical lilies are adapted to tropical environments, and some can grow leaves that are large enough to support the weight of a human being. Hardy lilies will grow in almost any environment and are commonly found in North America and Europe.

White water lilies.
White water lilies.

The roots of water lilies are embedded in the mud, well below the water line. The mud keeps the roots anchored and provides a source of nutrition, while richly oxygenated water seeps into the roots. The long, trailing stems also collect oxygen from the water they grow in, and the big leaves absorb sunlight for energy. Most reproduce by budding new tubers, which will densely concentrate the plants in one area of a waterway unless the tubers are distributed by animals or the current.

A pond with water lilies.
A pond with water lilies.

Water lilies are also religious symbols in many traditions, including ancient Egyptian polytheism, Buddhism, and Hinduism. They are commonly associated with enlightenment and resurrection, as many species close up and appear to die at night, reviving in the morning with the sunlight.

In Egyptian art, many royal representatives were depicted holding sacred lotuses, members of the water lily family, and the gods were also associated with these plants. In Buddhism, the lotus is an important symbol of enlightenment because it illustrates beauty rising through mud and water to bloom. Because many species tightly furl their blossoms at night and reopen in the morning, the lotus is also a symbol of opening to the light.

Frequently Asked Questions

What exactly are water lilies?

The lotus flower has great symbolism in the Buddhist tradition.
The lotus flower has great symbolism in the Buddhist tradition.

Water lilies are aquatic plants belonging to the family Nymphaeaceae, known for their distinctive lily pads and star-shaped flowers. They play a crucial role in their ecosystems by providing habitat and oxygenating water. Water lilies thrive in still, fresh bodies of water and are revered for their beauty and cultural significance in many societies.

How do water lilies contribute to their ecosystem?

Water lilies are ecological powerhouses, providing essential services to their habitats. They create microhabitats for aquatic organisms, offer shade that helps regulate water temperature, and their roots stabilize sediment, reducing erosion. Additionally, they absorb nutrients from the water, which can help control algae growth and maintain water quality.

Can water lilies be found all over the world?

Yes, water lilies have a global distribution and are found on every continent except Antarctica. They are particularly diverse in tropical regions but can also be found in temperate zones. Their adaptability allows them to thrive in a variety of climates, from the Amazon to the ponds of Europe and North America.

Are there different types of water lilies?

There are indeed numerous types of water lilies, with over 50 species classified into two main categories: hardy and tropical. Hardy water lilies can withstand cooler temperatures and typically bloom during the day, while tropical varieties prefer warmer climates and may have night-blooming flowers. Both groups boast a range of colors and sizes, adding to their appeal.

How do water lilies reproduce?

Water lilies can reproduce both sexually, through pollination of their flowers, and asexually, via vegetative propagation. Their flowers attract insects which facilitate cross-pollination, leading to seed production. Additionally, water lilies can spread through rhizomes or tubers that break off from the parent plant, allowing them to colonize new areas of a water body.

What are the cultural significances of water lilies?

Water lilies hold profound cultural significance across various societies. In ancient Egypt, they were associated with the sun and rebirth. For Buddhists, they symbolize enlightenment due to their growth from murky waters into beautiful blooms. In Western art, water lilies are famously captured in Claude Monet's paintings, representing peace and tranquility.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a AllThingsNature researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Learn more...
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a AllThingsNature researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Learn more...

Discussion Comments

I remember a gorgeous water lilies painting that a classmate did in college. We got to choose our own subjects and our own mediums, and she chose watercolors and water lilies. It just seemed natural to paint them with water.

The whole painting took on a ripply, underwater look. With watercolors, you often get this effect. It was just so appropriate with the subject being water lilies.

My friend has some blue water lilies, and he planted them in a pot before putting them in the pond. He did this because he knew he would need to move them before the water got cold so they wouldn't die.

The pot he used had holes in the bottom for drainage, so he lined it with newspaper. This would keep his potting soil from escaping. It would float around inside the pot but it wouldn't get away.

When fall arrived and the temperatures dipped, he removed the pots from the shallow water and brought them into his greenhouse. This is sort of an experiment at this stage to see if they can live in a watery pot of soil through the winter in a warm environment.

@wavy58 – I only have experience with one type of water lily, but I can tell you about it. I bought some pink water lilies a few years ago, and they have done very well in my pond.

Some plants have only one flower, but others have produced two flowers. I haven't seen more than two on one plant, though.

Each plant makes up to seven lily pads. Some only have five pads, but I don't believe I've seen fewer than that.

The cool thing about these pink water lilies is that they are very hardy. They don't die in winter like most plants do.


I have a shallow pond in my yard, and I am planning to buy some water lilies. I have a few questions about them, though.

How many flowers does each plant produce? Also, will there be more than one lily pad arising from each plant, or will there just be one?

Can I grow water lilies in an apartment? I'm thinking about getting a water tank and growing water lilies in there, but I have no idea if it will work or not.

I was told that the most important thing for water lilies is sunlight. My apartment gets good sunlight so I think that will be okay.

Has anyone ever tried growing water lilies inside the home?

@alisha-- I know what you're talking about!

Those are called Amazon water lilies or Victoria lilies. I saw them when I visited Japan last year. It's one of the most beautiful and amazing things I have ever seen in my life. The ones I saw in Japan were so large that fifteen to twenty of them could cover the surface of a pond.

I still can't believe that such a plant exists. If I was lighter and had more courage, I could walk over the entire pond by stepping from one leaf of the Amazon water lily to the next. I want to go back to Asia so I can see it again.

I was watching a travel program about Thailand and they showed these lake plants that had huge leaves floating on top of the water. The leaves were so large, thick and sturdy that tourists were putting their kids on them and taking pictures. The leaves didn't go under water with the weight of the kids.

Are these a type of water lilies?

There is something so peaceful about a water garden and I love relaxing outside by mine. I have a small fountain that runs and trickles down into the water garden. Even the sound of this can be therapeutic, but I also have some water lilies planted in the water.

There are many evenings in the summer when we especially enjoy sitting outside and I couldn't resist buying a couple of night lilies. You don't see these blooms during the day, but they are really lovely at night.

The reflection of these plants off the lights is a real treat and I would certainly recommend them to those who are looking for a plant for their water garden.

How easy is it to grow water lilies? We are going to be moving into a new house and part of my landscaping plans include a water garden. This is a new experience for me and I want something this is attractive but doesn't take a whole lot of time to keep up.

I have never grown water lilies before, but have grown several other varieties of lilies. There are many things I love about these plants, and one of them is that they multiply quickly and are easy to grow and transplant.

It sounds like the water lilies are similar in this respect. I often transplant lilies from new tubers that have grown and this is an inexpensive way to populate any garden area. It sounds like I could start out with one or two water lilies and by the next season, I would have even more of them.


I have some hardy water lilies in my water garden because these are best suited for the climate where I live. When I have visited tropical places I always notice what kind of water plants they have and I love the tropical water lilies. They have huge leaves that are a lot bigger than the hardy lilies, and you also need a larger water space so they have room to grow and spread out.

Lilies of just about any variety are some of my favorite plants, but if you have a water garden or a pond, you will definitely want some water lilies. For me, planting water lilies in a pond seems to go hand in hand.

When I added a small outdoor pond to my landscaping, I knew this was one of the first plants I would use. Not only are they pretty easy to grow and maintain, but they add so much beauty as well.


If you are new to water gardening and your water lilies are suffering from brown leaves you may just be witnessing a part of the plant's normal life cycle. Sometimes new plants, such as water lilies, suffer a bit of a shock when they get transplanted into a new area and their leaves start to discolor.

A good idea is to wait a while and see if any new growth starts. If not, you may need to invest in some quality fertilizer to make your plants happier.

If you suspect something like a fungus is to blame, ask your local gardening supply store and they should be able to help you find a fix.


If you have a pond in your home garden adding some water lilies to it can make a gorgeous addition to your yard. With the number of varieties available you can certainly find one that matches your tastes, and amount of time you have to dedicate to their care.

There are a hardy variety of water lilies that can survive harsh winters by being placed in cool storage and those that thrive in tropical climates.

All water lilies require some upkeep and there are numerous sites online for enthusiasts to share their techniques. Join a group and see what tips you can pick up from the pros.

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    • Pink water lilies.
      By: Tonanakan
      Pink water lilies.
    • White water lilies.
      By: Pavel Klimenko
      White water lilies.
    • A pond with water lilies.
      A pond with water lilies.
    • The lotus flower has great symbolism in the Buddhist tradition.
      By: kostin77
      The lotus flower has great symbolism in the Buddhist tradition.