What's the Difference Between Water Lilies and Water Lotus?

These two aquatic flowers may appear similar, but they have definite distinctions.

Single water lily bloom surrounded by leaves

Maeve Diggins / EyeEm / Getty Images

It might be easy at first to get these two aquatic flowers mixed up, but they have definite distinctions. In fact, though these are both flowers found in water, they actually belong to two separate families of flowers. It is also easy to tell them apart at a glance once you know what to look for.

The biggest difference is that water lilies' pads and flowers remain close to the surface of the water, growing no higher than eight inches, while water lotuses grow up and out of the water, sometimes as high as four to six feet in a real pond. This depends on the container size and whether it's restricting growth; dwarf varieties are, of course, smaller, as are plants grown in an artificial pond. These might grow only to two or three feet in height. The word to describe lilies' proximity to the water is "floating," whereas lotuses are "emergent." Both are fragrant flowers with generally pleasant aromas.

Lotus flowers also tend to be larger than lilies, measuring 12 inches across in some cases. (An exception is the Victoria amazonica, the biggest water lily in the world, that has flowers up to 16 inches across, almost ten-foot-wide leaves, and can support a 65-pound child.) There is greater variation in the appearance of water lilies' leaves; these can appear green or mottled with white or purple. Lotus leaves, on the other hand, appear more uniformly green, with color limited to the flower. Lily leaves have a cut that goes from the edge to the center, used to drain water back into the pond, while lotus leaves are fully intact. They collect water at the base of the leaves and eventually release it thanks to flexible stems and wind.

The water lily tends to be a hardier plant than the lotus. It has adapted to live in a wider range of habitats from hardiness zones 4 to 11, whereas the lotus is suited only to aquatic habitats found no further north than zone 5. Tropical lilies are restricted to zones 9-11. Lotuses require more fertilization than lilies and a bigger pot in which to grow.

A lily's seeds ripen underwater and a lotus's ripen above the surface of the water. The lily forms a seed pod and drops it down in the water, where it gets released. The lotus drops its seeds out of a pod onto the surface of the water, where they float away. Interestingly, lotus seeds can germinate many years after production. There are some records of lotus seeds germinating after a thousand years.

Curious about more in-depth differences? This video will answer your questions.