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On the Water, Lilies and Lotuses Can Look Similar

In the summer, our ponds, lakes and rivers can become as green as our forests, with plants rising up to and above the surface. Our shores can be lined with aquatic grasses and plants, and the surface of the water itself can be green with life.

American lotus leaves and a flower growing up from the water.
American lotus. (Photo by Chad Morsch)

Take duckweed, the world's smallest known flowering plant. You may see mats and clusters of these tiny plants all over each summer. Some waterways also are home to lily pads and American lotus. These two aquatic plants are often collectively referred to as lily pads, but they are two separate plants.

Both lily pads, also known as water lilies, and American lotus are commonly grown in private ponds and water gardens. They also both grow in the wild in Illinois and beyond. Both have large, circular leaves that can cover the water's surface in areas where they grow. So how can you tell them apart?

At the right time of year, their flowers are an easy way to tell them apart. Our local water lily species have large, pink flowers with yellow centers. They usually bloom from July through October. American lotuses often bloom a little earlier, beginning in June and lasting through September. Lotus blooms are also large, but they are light yellow in color and have deeper yellow centers. A lotus flower is also elevated, with the yellow blooms attached to long stalks growing up from the water's surface. Pink water lily blooms grow right on top of their large leaves.


Words to know

Aquatic: Relating to water.

Notch: An indentation or incision on an edge or surface.

Ornamental: Intended as decorative.

Rhizome: A continuously growing underground stem.


When they aren’t flowering, their leaves can also be a clue to whether you are seeing water lilies or American lotuses. Both have large leaves, but lotus leaves are usually larger. They top out at about 2 feet wide. Lily pad leaves are usually between 8 inches and 16 inches wide. Lily pad leaves also have a noticeable V-shaped notch on their leaves.

Another difference in their leaves is where they are in relation to the water. Lily leaves are typically resting just at water level, floating on the surface. Lotus leaves are elevated above the water's surface. At a distance, the easiest way to tell them apart is by their leaves. Lily leaves rest on the water, and lotus leaves are always growing up over the water.

The seeds of these two plants are also different, starting with where they grow. Water lily seeds ripen underwater, while a lotus plant's seeds ripen above the surface. Lotus seeds are released onto the water's surface then float away from the parent plant. Water lily seeds start above the water, then drop below to ripen before being released and sinking to the bottom of the water.

Both water lilies and American lotus grow from rhizomes in the soil underneath the water. Although water lilies look to be free floating, they are both firmly attached to the ground. Both grow best in calm, still waters so their leaves aren't disturbed by the current.

American lotus is native to Illinois and much of the eastern United States. They can spread quickly in the warm, sunny waters where they thrive. Some water lily species are also native, but other ornamental varieties are also sometimes found growing in the wild after spreading from private ponds and waterways.


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