How to Grow and Care for Water Lilies and Lotus

water lily

The Spruce / Adrienne Legault 

Water lilies (Nymphaea) are jewels of the aquatic world. They and closely-related lotus (Nelumbo) are rooted in soil, emerging above the water surface, appearing as if they were floating. The flowers are round and centered around a radial notch. The plants are symbolic in ancient and modern times, celebrated for their beauty, and immortalized in art and religion.

Many water lilies and lotuses 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 sunshine to flower.

While most water lilies are grown outdoors, you can grow small varieties of these plants in containers indoors. The keys to success with these plants are providing plenty of light, sufficient water, and keeping the water relatively clean (for your sake and that of the plants).

Common Names Water lily and lotus
Botanical Name Nymphaea (water lily); Nelumbo (lotus) 
Family Nymphaeceae (water lily); Nelumbonaceae (lotus)
Plant Type Herbaceous, perennial
Mature Size Water lily: 3-6 in. tall, 4-8 ft. wide; lotus: 3-6 ft. tall, 3-4 ft. wide 
Sun Exposure Full
Soil Type Loamy, clay, silt, sandy
Soil pH Neutral
Bloom Time Summer
Flower Color Water lily: blue, purple, yellow, red, white, pink, orange; lotus: white, pink, yellow
Hardiness Zones 4-10 (USDA)
Native Area Asia, Australia, North America

Water Lily and Lotus Care

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 escape 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 the container. A waterlily with a six-foot spread will not thrive in a whiskey barrel or a small tub. Plenty of options are available on the market in all colors and sizes.

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  


Make sure your waterlily or lotus receives enough sunlight—at least four hours, but ideally six hours or more per day. Some lotus will not flower unless they receive six hours of sunlight daily.


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


Strike a balance between plants and the surface area of the pond; plants should cover approximately 65 percent of the surface area. Also 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 fourinches and no more than 18 inches below the surface; lotus should be between six and 18 inches below the surface.

Temperature and Humidity

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

Tropical water lilies are stored over winter by lifting the plant from its 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 Fahrenheit.


Fertilize your plants with tablets that you press into the soil around the plant. Do not fertilize directly into the water because 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.

Types of Water Lilies

The two main divisions of waterlilies are 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 several ways; tropical water lilies:

  • Can have larger flowers
  • Have longer stalks that hold the flower higher above the surface of the water, and they tend to have larger lily pads
  • Come in a range of colors, including blues and purples; hardy waterlilies come only in shades of yellows, reds, whites, pinks, and pastel orange
  • Are more fragrant
  • 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 lotus: Nelumbo nucifera and Nelumbo lutea.

  • Nucifera is native to tropical regions of Australia and Asia and has 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.
closeup of a pink lotus
The Spruce / Adrienne Legault  
closeup of a lotus
The Spruce / Adrienne Legault 
pink lotus
The Spruce / Adrienne Legault  


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.

Propagating Water Lilies and Lotus

Water lilies and lotus can be easily propagated by dividing a mature plant. Because they've been sitting in water, this is a messy and somewhat smelly job. It is best to do this before their flowering season. Here's how:

  1. Lift the container of water lilies or lotus out of the water and remove the plant carefully from its container.
  2. Wash away any potting material to expose the root stems.
  3. Using a sharp knife, cut sections from the tuber that have at least two to three eyes.
  4. Put the original plant back in its container and return it to the water slowly to avoid any air pockets.
  5. Take the new divisions and place the into containers and repot them as directed in the potting and repotting section below.
  6. Place the new plants in the water.

Potting and Repotting Water Lilies and Lotus

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 two inches of sand, followed by two to three 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 the soil. Be very careful not to damage the tuber or runners that extend from the tuber. Add water until the soil is saturated with mud, without puddling on top.

Growing Water Lilies Indoors

It's possible to grow water lilies in containers as small as 12 inches across and at least nine inches deep. You can use a large salad or mixing bowl or even a small aquarium. This method works best with very small dwarf varieties such as Nymphaea 'Pygmaea Helvola'. 

Start with a soil-based planting mix designed for use in aquariums. Rinse the mix under running water to wash away loose soil. Place the mix into the container and plant the lily following its planting instructions. Carefully fill the container with water to a depth of about six inches. Place the container where the lily can receive at least four hours of sun each day (or supplement with an energy-efficient grow light, as needed).

If the plant fails to bloom, it's probably not receiving enough light. Add water as needed to maintain the original water level (or whatever the plant seems to like). In spring and summer, fertilize with a small amount of liquid fertilizer for aquatic plants every two weeks; follow the product recommendations for the amount of fertilizler to use.

Common Pests and Diseases

Both of these aquatic plants, water lilies and lotus, have pests and diseases that afflict them. From aphids to leaf-eating pests, and even moths and worms that attack the stems and roots of these plants, you will need to keep an eye out for holes and spots on the leaves or yellow curling foliage. If the leaves or the plant don't look right, then you know that something is affecting it.

Aphids, beetles, midges, and China mark moths are pests that can come and feast on the leaves of water lilies. Aphids can be drowned by submerging the leaves, while both water lily beetles and the China mark moth will need to be removed by hand. Midges can be handled with mosquito dunks. Diseases commonly seen on water lilies are crown rot and leaf spot. Crown rot is best-taken care of by removing the affected plant and tossing it in the trash, while with leaf spot you can remove the leaves that have spots on them.

Lotus also are prone to have aphids come and feed on the leaves and are joined by other pests such as spider mites, whiteflies, and leaf-eating pests.

Prevention is key when caring for these plants, including removing any infested leaves and other parts of the plant as needed and keeping the water clean and free of debris.

  • Do water lilies and lotus plants bloom the first year?

    Both water lilies and lotus need some time to establish themselves and mature. They typically do not bloom in the first year but you can expect to see some blooms in the second year.

  • How long do water lilies and lotus plants live?

    Once these plants have taken hold, with proper care and maintenance, water lilies and lotus will live for up to 20 years.

  • Do water lilies and lotus flowers have a fragrance?

    Depending on the color of the flowers and species of plant, both water lilies and lotus blooms have a fragrance to them. Some smell like lemon, others sweet, while others have a pleasant floral scent.