How to Grow and Care for Water Lilies and Lotus

water lily

The Spruce / Adrienne Legault 

Water lilies (Nymphaea) and lotus (Nelumbo) are jewels of the aquatic world. Symbolic in both ancient and modern times, they are celebrated for their beauty and immortalized in art and religion. Many of them are easy to grow and reward the gardener with fragrant and sumptuous blossoms from June until October. Both plants are best planted in spring. Water lilies start faster and typically have a faster growth rate than lotus, which are notoriously slow to start and need warmth and plenty of sun to flower.

Botanical Name Nymphaea (Water lily); Nelumbo (Lotus) 
Common Name Water lily, Lotus
Plant Type Herbaceous perennial
Mature Size Water lily: 3 to 6 inches tall and 4 to 8 feet wide; Lotus: 3 to 6 feet tall and 3 to 4 feet wide 
Sun Exposure Full sun
Soil Type Top soil 
Soil pH Neutral
Bloom Time Summer
Flower Color Water lily: blue, purple, yellow, red, white, pink, orange; Lotus: white, pink, yellow
Hardiness Zones 4 to 10 (for hardy varieties)
Native Area Asia, Australia, North America
water lily floating on the water's surface
The Spruce / Adrienne Legault  
yellow water lily
The Spruce / Adrienne Legault  
top view of a water lily
The Spruce / Adrienne Legault  

Types of Water Lilies

There are two main divisions of waterlilies: hardy and tropical. Hardy water lilies will survive winters if they are planted below the freezing line in a water feature, while tropical water lilies need to be stored over the winter or treated as annuals.

In addition to cold hardiness, tropical water lilies differ from hardy water lilies in the following ways:

  • Tropical water lilies can have larger flowers.
  • They have longer stalks that hold the flower higher above the surface of the water, and they tend to have larger lily pads.
  • They come in a range of colors, including blues and purples; hardy waterlilies only come in shades of yellows, reds, whites, pinks, and pastel orange.
  • They are more fragrant.
  • They come in day-blooming varieties (diurnal) and night-blooming varieties (nocturnal); hardy waterlilies are only day-blooming.

Types of Lotus

The Nelumbonaceae family includes two species of louts: Nelumbo nucifera and Nelumbo lutea. Nucifera is native to tropical regions of Australia and Asia and have pink or white flowers. Lutea, also known as American lotus, has yellow flowers and is native to North America, where it grows in ponds, lakes, swamps, and other still bodies of water.

How to Grow Water Lilies and Lotus

Plant water lilies and lotus in large plastic containers or baskets specifically designed for aquatic plants. If necessary, you can line baskets with burlap or landscape fabric so that the soil does not fall through the cracks. Several sheets of newspaper can be placed on the bottom of containers for the same purpose.

If you don’t happen to have a pond, a whiskey barrel or planter are great alternatives for a water feature. Make sure to research the ultimate size of your plant before you buy it. A waterlily with a 6-foot spread will not thrive in a whiskey barrel or a small tub. There are plenty of options available on the market in all colors and sizes.

Light

Make sure your waterlily or lotus gets enough sunlight; at least four hours, ideally six hours or more. Some lotus will not flower unless they get six hours of sunlight daily.

Soil

Always use topsoil that is free from herbicides and pesticides. Do not use potting soil, which has elements that will float. The containers should be large enough to allow the rhizome room to spread. Since the rhizomes creep across the surface of the soil, a wider pot is preferable to a deeper one.

Water

Strike a balance between plants and the surface area of the pond; plants should cover approximately 65 percent of the surface area. Pay attention to depth when you are planting your aquatic plants. With new plantings, initially place the pot just below the surface and gradually lower it as the plant grows. Once the plant is established, the pot can remain at the desired depth.

Planting too high will cause hardy plants to freeze in the winter; too low will prevent young plants from receiving enough sunlight. Waterlilies prefer to be planted no less than 4 inches and no more than 18 inches below the surface; lotus should be between 6 and 18 inches below the surface.

Temperature and Humidity

Lotus and hardy water lilies will be hardy if their tuberous rhizomes do not freeze. Plant the containers so that the soil line is below the freezing mark in your pool. Lotus flowers are late to emerge in the spring, as they prefer warm weather and will start to grow once the water temperature has risen above 70 degrees Fahrenheit.

Tropical water lilies can be stored over winter by lifting the plant from the container and storing the rhizome in a plastic bag full of damp sand or a mix of damp sand and peat moss at 50 to 55 degrees.

Fertilizer

Fertilize your plants with tablets that you press into the soil around the plant. Do not fertilize directly into the water, as you will change the pH of the water and harm both plants and fish. Fertilize plants once a month. Tropical waterlilies are heavy feeders and should be fertilized generously throughout the growing season.

Potting

Planting instructions vary for tropical and hardy water lilies. Tropical water lilies should be planted just like annuals. They often come as bare-root plants. Place them in the center of a container and let the crown of the plant rest just above the surface of the soil. With hardy water lilies, plant the rhizome at a 45-degree angle with the growing tip positioned toward the middle of the pot, resting slightly above the soil level. Cover the soil with gravel or a thin layer of sand.

Plant lotus in a plastic pot sized for your water feature and the ultimate size of the plant; lotus grows to the size of its container. Start with about 2 inches of sand, followed by 2 to 3 inches of topsoil that has some clay content. Dig a small trench with your hand, then lay the lotus plant tuber into the trench so the leaves are facing up. Gently cover the tuber with a small amount of soil, but do not compact it. Be very careful not to damage the tuber or runners that extend from the tuber. Add water until the soil is saturated mud, without puddling on top.

Pruning

Each flower on the water lily lasts three to five days. They open during the day and close at night (unless they are nocturnal). Once the flower is finished, it will slowly sink into the water. Seed pods form, and the ripe seeds fall into the soil below. Seed production is costly to the plant. To ensure many blooms, cut the dying flowers as they sink below the surface. Follow the stem down as far as it goes; either cut it or snap it off with your fingers. Also, clean off dead or dying leaves in the same manner.

Lotuses die back at the end of the year. Cut them down to a few inches above the rhizome.

closeup of a lotus
The Spruce / Adrienne Legault 
closeup of a pink lotus
The Spruce / Adrienne Legault  
pink lotus
The Spruce / Adrienne Legault