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Water Lily vs Lotus: 5 Key Differences

Hello everyone! Today, let’s dive into comparing two beautiful and well-loved plants: the Water Lily and the Lotus.

The main difference between Water Lilies and Lotuses lies in their growth habits and leaf characteristics. Water Lilies (Nymphaea species) have leaves and flowers that float on the water’s surface, with their roots anchored in soil underwater. In contrast, Lotuses (Nelumbo species) have leaves and flowers that rise above the water, often standing several inches to a few feet tall.

Additionally, Lotus leaves are round with a notable central stem, whereas Water Lily leaves are typically round without a prominent stem. The flowers also differ; Lotus flowers are large and symmetrical with a distinctive seed pod at their center, while Water Lily flowers vary more in shape and rarely have a noticeable seed pod.

Water Lily Lotus
Genius Nymphaea Nelumbo
USDA Hardiness zone 4-11 5-10
Habitat North and South America, Europe, Africa, Asia, Australia North and Central America, Asia
Mature height 2-8” (5-20 cm) above the water surface 4-6′ (1.2-1.8 m) above the water surface
Mature width 3-5′ (0.9-1.5 m) The width of giant water lilies is unknown. 5′ (1.5 m)
Flowers 0,5-1′ across (15-30 cm), fragrant 1′ (30 cm) across, fragrant
Leaves 1-10′ across (0.3-3 m), green, round  2.5′ across (0.8 m), green, round
Light exposure Full sun Full sun
Seeds Underwater ripening Above-water ripening
Water Lily vs Lotus

Water Lily and Lotus


Lotus flowers stand tall above the water, whereas water lily blooms float on the surface. The height of lotus flowers varies with the type and variety; typically, they reach 4-6 feet high in natural ponds and 2-3 feet in artificial, plastic ponds.

Another key difference is in the flower centers. Water lilies have a common floral center with pistils and stamens, while lotuses feature a unique androecial ring in the middle, adding to their decorative appeal.

Generally, water lily flowers are a bit smaller than lotus flowers, which can grow up to 1 foot in diameter.

Both plants boast fragrant flowers, each with a slightly different but equally delightful scent. Moreover, lotuses and water lilies come in a wide range of colors, offering a diverse palette for any water garden.


Initially, I mentioned that lotus leaves rise above the water, but that’s a simplification. Actually, the lotus has three types of leaves.

First, there are submerged leaves, which grow just below the water’s surface. Next, like water lilies, lotuses also have floating leaves. The third type consists of leaves that rise above the water on sturdy, yet flexible stems. In natural settings, these leaf stems can stretch over five feet.

In contrast, water lilies only have one leaf type, which floats on the water’s surface.

Water lily vs Lotus leaves

Water lily and Lotus leaves

Regarding the foliage of both, most water lily leaves feature a cut from the edge to the center, allowing surface water to drain back into the pond.

Lotus leaves don’t have this cut. Instead of being flat like water lily leaves, they have a central depression that collects water.

Both plants have round, plate-like leaves. Some water lily varieties have smaller leaves, usually under 12 inches in diameter, while others average about 20 inches wide.

Lotus leaves are generally larger, often exceeding 30 inches in diameter.

Species and Varieties

The lotus belongs to the genus Nelumbo, comprising just two species: Nelumbo nucifera, known as the sacred lotus, and Nelumbo lutea, the American lotus.

On the other hand, the water lily, scientifically called Nymphaea, encompasses around 70 different species. This indicates a much broader species diversity compared to the lotus.

It’s common to see water lilies mistakenly referred to as lotuses. For example, Nymphaea lotus is often called the Egyptian white lotus, and Nymphaea caerulea is known as the Blue Egyptian lotus.

Despite having fewer species, the lotus boasts a remarkable variety, thanks to global breeding efforts. These efforts have led to the creation of numerous stunning lotus varieties.

Lotus varieties typically feature broad petals in colors ranging from white and pink to light yellow and red. A particularly unique variety is Nelumbo ‘Thousand Petals’ (also known as Qianban Lian), celebrated for its abundant pink petals that resemble double peonies.

water lily vs lotus

Nymphaea Wanvisa

Water lily has its own surprises, like the Nymphaea ‘Blue Aster’, characterized by narrow, sharply-tipped petals in a striking blue with a yellow center – a color combination not found in lotuses.

Another distinctive water lily variety is Nymphaea ‘Wanvisa’, which exhibits a mix of yellow and red hues, often split halfway between the two colors. This bicolor effect is yet to be seen in lotus varieties.

Habitat and Hardiness

The habitat of the lotus is relatively limited. Nelumbo nucifera, the sacred lotus, is native to various parts of Asia and isn’t found naturally elsewhere. Nelumbo lutea, the American lotus, primarily grows in North America, with occasional appearances in Central America.

In contrast, water lilies boast a much broader geographical distribution. These plants are found globally, with different species native to various regions. In the United States and Canada, local species are common. Nymphaea alba is widespread across Europe, while Nymphaea caerulea originates from Africa, Madagascar, and parts of Asia. Nymphaea amazonum is native to the tropical forests of South America.

Thanks to its numerous species, the water lily has adapted to a wide range of habitats, influencing its hardiness. Various species can thrive in USDA hardiness zones ranging from 4 in colder northern regions to 11 in the southern areas. However, tropical water lilies are best suited to zones 9-11.

Lotuses, on the other hand, are generally recommended for growth up to USDA hardiness zone 5, making them less accessible to some enthusiasts of such plants.


Nymphaea (water lilies) and Nelumbo (lotuses) are similar in width, with each plant typically spanning about five feet.

However, their heights differ. The submerged portions of both plants reach 2 to 3 feet tall. Above water, the lotus stands taller, between 4-6 feet (1.2-1.8 meters), while the water lily’s above-water height varies from 2 inches to about 8 inches (5-20 centimeters).

This implies that lotuses require a stronger root system to support their larger mass and to withstand wind and rain.

To grow a lotus successfully, a larger pot and more soil are necessary, along with more frequent feeding compared to a water lily. For maximum leaf and flower size, cultivating a lotus in a large pond with a natural bottom is ideal, providing ample space for root development.

Water lily vs Lotus seeds

Water lily vs Lotus seeds

Water lily and Lotus seed pods

Both lotus and water lily flowers have a lifespan of about 3-4 days. Post-pollination, their petals wilt, leading to the seed maturation process. This process marks a significant distinction between the two plants.

For the lotus, seed maturation follows a pattern common to many flowers. Post-bloom, the flower transforms into a seed pod, which matures above water. Once ripe, the seeds fall into the water, where they can be dispersed by water currents or animals.

The water lily’s process is quite different. After flowering, it forms a seed pod that submerges to a shallow depth under the water. Upon reaching maturity, the pod opens, and the seeds are released to float away.

A unique feature of lotus seeds is their exceptionally long viability; there are records of lotus seeds germinating after over a thousand years.

The seeds of both plants are highly valued in culinary applications. They are known for their nutritional richness and are used in various forms, such as fried, boiled, ground, or even as snacks.

Water lily vs Lotus Symbolism

Throughout history, the water lily has carried various symbolic meanings.

In modern times, the water lily is a national symbol or features on the coats of arms of several Asian countries, reflecting its revered status and positive associations in these cultures.

In Europe’s past, the water lily also appeared on some national coats of arms, reflecting a positive symbolism, particularly in an era when religious sentiment was more pronounced than it is today.

However, the water lily’s symbolism hasn’t always been positive. In ancient India, for instance, it was viewed as a symbol of sadness and separation, among other negative connotations.

The lotus, in contrast, has consistently been seen as a symbol of divine grace, holding a special place in ancient Asian cultures.

In Buddhism, the lotus is often depicted as a throne for deities, and images of the Buddha frequently include lotus motifs, underscoring its status as a sacred plant.

Additionally, the remarkable longevity of lotus seeds, capable of germinating after many years, is seen in many cultures as a symbol of enduring life and eternal existence.

little lily

Sunday 2nd of April 2023

What are the similarities of water lily and lotus?


Saturday 8th of July 2023 Whether lotus and water Lilly can be grown together in a single large pot?

Igor Viznyy

Sunday 2nd of April 2023

Water lilies and lotus plants share several similarities, including:

Aquatic plants: Both water lilies and lotus plants are aquatic plants that grow in shallow waters, such as ponds, lakes, and slow-moving streams. Large, showy flowers: Both plants are known for their large, showy flowers that come in a variety of colors and attract pollinators like bees and butterflies. Floating leaves: Both water lilies and lotus plants have floating leaves that provide shade and shelter for aquatic animals, while also helping to oxygenate the water. Symbolic significance: Both plants have symbolic significance in many cultures around the world, and are often associated with spiritual and cultural traditions. For example, in Hinduism and Buddhism, the lotus is a sacred flower that represents purity, enlightenment, and rebirth, while water lilies are often associated with tranquility, beauty, and inner peace. Culinary uses: In some cultures, both water lilies and lotus plants are used for culinary purposes. For example, lotus roots and seeds are used in Asian cuisine, while water lily seeds and leaves are used in some African and South American dishes.

Overall, while water lilies and lotus plants have some similarities, they are distinct plant species with different characteristics and ecological roles.

Anna S.

Sunday 2nd of April 2023

Roots of water lily and lotus

Igor Viznyy

Sunday 2nd of April 2023

The roots of water lilies and lotus plants are different in terms of their appearance, growth habit, and ecological function.

Water lilies have thin, branching roots that grow in the sediment at the bottom of shallow waters. The roots of water lilies help to anchor the plant in place and absorb nutrients from the surrounding water. They are usually white or yellow in color and can be quite long, sometimes extending several feet or more.

Lotus plants, on the other hand, have thick, tuberous roots that grow horizontally in the mud or sediment at the bottom of shallow waters. The roots of the lotus plant are typically brown or black in color and can grow to be quite large, sometimes several feet in length and width. The roots of the lotus plant are important for the plant's survival, as they store nutrients and help the plant to survive during periods of drought or other adverse environmental conditions.

In addition to their ecological functions, both water lily roots and lotus roots have cultural significance in many parts of the world. In some Asian cultures, for example, lotus roots are used in cooking and are considered a delicacy, while in some indigenous cultures in the Americas, water lily roots have medicinal properties and are used to treat various ailments.

Anna S.

Sunday 2nd of April 2023

Are lotus seed pods same as water lily pods?

Igor Viznyy

Sunday 2nd of April 2023

No, lotus seed pods and water lily pods are not the same. While both plants produce seed pods, they have different shapes, sizes, and textures.

Lotus seed pods are large, round or oval-shaped structures that are typically green or brown in color. They are covered in small holes or cavities that contain the lotus seeds. The texture of the lotus seed pod is somewhat woody and fibrous.

Water lily pods, on the other hand, are small, elongated structures that are green in color and have a smooth, waxy texture. The seeds of the water lily are contained within the pod, which eventually splits open when the seeds are mature.

Both lotus seed pods and water lily pods have culinary uses in different cultures. In some Asian cuisines, lotus seed pods are used in soups, stews, and other dishes, while in some African and South American cuisines, water lily pods are used in salads, stews, and other dishes. However, the two types of seed pods have different flavors and textures, and are not interchangeable in recipes.


Sunday 2nd of April 2023

Is a white lotus a water lily?

Igor Viznyy

Sunday 2nd of April 2023

The term "white lotus" can refer to different plants depending on the context, but in general, it is more commonly associated with the lotus plant (Nelumbo nucifera) rather than the water lily (Nymphaea spp.). The lotus plant is also known as the sacred lotus or Indian lotus and is native to Asia, while water lilies are a group of aquatic plants that belong to the family Nymphaeaceae and are found in many parts of the world.

The white lotus is a variety of lotus plant that has white petals and a yellow center. It is highly regarded in many cultures, particularly in Asia, where it is considered a symbol of purity, enlightenment, and spiritual growth. In Buddhism, the white lotus is associated with the highest state of consciousness and the attainment of enlightenment.

In summary, while the term "white lotus" may sometimes be used interchangeably with "water lily," it more commonly refers to the lotus plant, which is a different plant species from the water lily.

Anna S.

Sunday 2nd of April 2023

Why is lotus called water lily?

Igor Viznyy

Sunday 2nd of April 2023

The lotus is sometimes referred to as a water lily because it is an aquatic plant that grows in shallow waters, similar to the true water lilies. However, it is important to note that the lotus and water lilies are two different plants with distinct characteristics and taxonomic classifications.

The confusion between the lotus and water lilies can be traced back to their cultural significance in different parts of the world. In many cultures, both plants are revered for their beauty and symbolism, and are often associated with spirituality, purity, and enlightenment. In some contexts, the term "water lily" may be used more broadly to refer to any aquatic plant with large, showy flowers, regardless of its taxonomic classification.

In summary, while the lotus and water lilies may share some similarities, such as growing in shallow waters and having large, beautiful flowers, they are two distinct plants with different scientific classifications.