Water Lilies

Photo of water lily pads and flowers on a pond
Scientific Name
Nymphaea spp.
Nymphaeaceae (water lilies)

Water lilies have large, round leaves 8–16 inches across, each with a single V-shaped notch, and each with its own stalk. The leaves may be floating, elevated above the water surface, or submerged, depending on water level fluctuations. The large, showy flowers have many petals that are typically white to pink to violet; the center is often yellow. Blooms July–October. Leaves and flowers are attached to flexible underwater stalks that rise from thick, woody rhizomes (modified underground stems) on the pond or lake bottom.

  • Not counting nonnative water lilies that are cultivated as aquatic ornamentals, Missouri has one species that is native and occurs sporadically nearly statewide: fragrant water lily (or white water lily), Nymphaea odorata.
  • A small population of a nonnative, hybrid water lily (N. x marliacea, apparently cv. 'Chromatella') has been reported as becoming somewhat naturalized in a small pond in Greene County.
  • Numerous other species and hybrids of water lilies (genus Nymphaea) are cultivated in ponds, but none of these have been documented as escaping into more natural environments. Globally, there are some 35 to 40 species in the genus.

Similar species: American lotus (Nelumbo lutea) has yellow to cream-colored flowers with a large central disk that resembles a showerhead. The leaves do not have a cleft. Spatterdock (Nuphar advena) has deep yellow, saucer- or globe-shaped flowers and oval or heart-shaped leaves, which are cleft.

Where To Find
image of Water Lilies distribution map


Ponds and slow-moving streams, in water up to about 8 feet deep. One species, white (fragrant) water lily (N. odorata), is a native perennial plant that occurs in our state without cultivation; it is also widely cultivated.

Water lilies are among the most beautiful of all water plants and are extensively cultivated. Many water lily hybrids and color forms are available for aquatic gardening, with some hardy and others requiring much maintenance. The Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis displays many lovely hybrids.

Water lilies may grow too rapidly and become a nuisance in some ponds.

The undersides of the floating leaves are nurseries for many aquatic insects and snails and thus provide food and shelter for small fish and others.

Many bees, flies, and beetles visit the flowers. The flowers have an interesting blooming biology involving the timing of flowers opening and closing, availability of nectar and pollen, and changing shapes of floral structures as the flower ages.

Media Gallery
Similar Species

Where to See Species

Taos Countryside Park Lake
City of Taos

Tom Wieberg, Park Director,at 573-619-7043 or email parks@cityoftaos.org
About Wildflowers, Grasses and Other Nonwoody Plants in Missouri
A very simple way of thinking about the green world is to divide the vascular plants into two groups: woody and nonwoody (or herbaceous). But this is an artificial division; many plant families include some species that are woody and some that are not. The diversity of nonwoody vascular plants is staggering! Think of all the ferns, grasses, sedges, lilies, peas, sunflowers, nightshades, milkweeds, mustards, mints, and mallows — weeds and wildflowers — and many more!