How to Plant and Grow Water Lilies

Growing water lilies in a pond brings beauty and serenity to a backyard.

Water lilies (Nymphaea spp.) are more than pretty plants. They also contribute to pond health. By covering the water's surface, they shade the water and keep it cooler, which helps control algae that thrive in heat. Water lilies also shelter fish from birds of prey and filter out excess nutrients to further inhibit algae growth.

Growing from stout rhizomes from the pond bottom, water lilies' signature leaves develop on long stems and float at the surface. When temperatures warm up in summer, water lilies' showy flowers open in the morning and close at night.

Water lilies are available in a rainbow of color options. Many of the hardy varieties have soft, pastel flowers; tropical varieties come in jewel tones of bright blues, purples, oranges, and yellows. Many varieties have a lovely fragrance, too. Although the majority of the species bloom strictly in the daytime, some bloom at night and close in the early morning.

Water Lily Overview

Genus Name Nymphaea
Common Name Water Lily
Plant Type Water Plant
Light Sun
Height 3 to 6 inches
Width 3 to 12 feet
Flower Color Blue, Orange, Pink, Purple, Red, White, Yellow
Foliage Color Blue/Green, Purple/Burgundy
Season Features Fall Bloom, Summer Bloom
Special Features Fragrance, Good for Containers, Low Maintenance
Zones 10, 11, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9
Propagation Division
various water lilies
Jennifer L. Peterson

Where to Plant Water Lilies

Hardy varieties will grow in most parts of the U.S., so almost anyone can add this enchanting perennial to a water garden. And you don't need a pond for growing water lilies; they'll thrive in a big tub on your patio. If you're new to water lilies or short on space, try growing them in a tub (it'll feel more manageable than an entire pond of water lilies).

Keep these aquatic plants contained in ponds and pots. In the wild, some water lily varieties can be invasive and compete with native plants.

How and When to Plant Water Lilies

Whether you're interested in growing water lilies in a container water garden or a pond, the steps for planting are the same. They start with planting the water lily in a small container that will be placed into a pond or tub.

Choose a 12- to 20-inch diameter container that is 8-10 inches deep and cover the drainage hole with mesh or burlap to prevent the soil from escaping. The plant grows to the size of the container, so if you are working with a small tub instead of a pond, choose a smaller pot.

Fill the pot two-thirds of the way with typical garden soil or soil made for aquatic gardening, not lightweight potting mixes containing perlite, vermiculite, or peat. You want it to be heavy. Place the rhizome against the side of the pot, with the growing tip pointing upward at about 45 degrees and toward the center of the pot. Cover all except the tip with soil and add a layer of small rocks or pea gravel to keep the soil in place.

Lower the planted pot into the pond or tub at an angle to allow air to escape. Set the base of the pot 12-16 inches deep. As they grow, the leaves will float to the surface. If your plant has leaves already developing, begin by placing the container so that the leaves are 6-8 inches deep. After several days, the leaves should reach the surface, then lower the plant to its final depth of 12-16 inches. 

Water Lily Care Tips


Most water lilies need at least six hours of direct sunlight daily to flower. Some can bloom in four to six hours of partial shade, but none bloom in deep shade.

Soil and Water

Loam or clay soil is best for filling the water lily's pot before it is lowered into the water. Don't use a lightweight soil mix.

Temperature and Humidity

Hardy water lilies are available for a wide range of zones. Check with a supplier for the varieties that perform best in your area.

Tropical water lilies require a water temperature in the 70°F-75°F range and die if the water temperature falls below 60°F.


During the growing season, fertilize the plants every month or two with aquatic fertilizer tablets for the best blossoms, following the product directions.


Water lilies may need regular grooming of leaves as they begin to yellow and die.

Potting and Repotting a Water Lily

Water lilies grow to the size of their pot. There is no need to repot them unless you want them to grow even larger.

Pests and Problems

Water lilies can attract aphids. If they do, submerge the leaves under water for a couple of days to drown them. They also attract water lily beetles that chew holes in the leaves; if this happens, spray the leaves with water or pick off the individual beetles and drop them into a jar of soapy water.

How to Propagate Water Lilies

Propagating water lilies by division is a messy job if the plant is wintered over in water. In early spring, lift the water lily completely out of the water and its container. With a sharp knife, cut sections of the rhizome that have at least two eyes and some indication of early growth and replant immediately in individual containers. Discard any tough woody portion of the original plant.

If the rhizome was lifted for the winter or has never been planted, cut it into 2- to 3-inch sections containing an eye and drop them into a jar of water, where they germinate in a few days. For each section, fill a small pot without a drain hole partway with soil and set the section in the pot with the germinated portion facing up. Add additional soil but don't cover the area that has germinated. Pour water in the container up to the germination point but don't cover it. Put the pot in a bright area until the leaves develop.

How to Winterize Water Lilies

Begin getting your hardy water lilies ready for winter by removing all dead and dying foliage.

If you are growing hardy varieties, you can leave them in the pond as long as the water doesn't freeze. Just lower the plants to the bottom of the pond. Come spring, as soon as any threats of late freezes are over, bring the lily pots back up to growing height.

If your pond freezes solid or if you drain it for the winter, remove the lily, pot and all. Store the entire pot by keeping it cool and moist in a plastic bag. If you can't store the entire pot, remove and clean the growing rhizome and store it in peat moss or sawdust at 40°F-50°F. If you've dug up and stored the rhizome, repot as if it were a new plant in spring.

Types of Water Lilies

Hardy water lilies are a good choice for beginners. They are dependable and easy to plant. The blossoms open in the morning and close after sunset, usually lasting three or four days before sinking back beneath the surface. The flowers appear from spring to fall and go dormant in the winter (you can leave them in the water or take them out and store them in a shed or garage).

Tropical water lilies, which look even more captivating when in bloom, need more care but are well worth the effort. Their flowers are larger and more prolific, and some of the night-blooming varieties have vibrant, almost electric colors. Tropical water lilies need a water temperature above 70°F, and the rhizomes have to be taken out of the water in winter.

Cape Blue Water Lily

Cape blue water lily
Marty Baldwin

This Nymphaea capensis selection is a day-bloomer that features fragrant light blue flowers with a distinct star shape that rise above the floating leaves in summer. The plant spreads 5-8 feet. Zones 4-10

'Colorado' Water Lily

Colorado water lily
Bill Stites

Nymphaea 'Colorado' delights with vivid pink-peach day-blooming flowers tipped in pale yellow. Its new leaves are burgundy, adding extra interest. The plants grow 3-5 feet across. Zones 4-10

'George L. Thomas' Water Lily

George L. Thomas water lily
Bill Stites

This type of Nymphaea offers shimmering, deep pink blooms during the day. This fast-growing plant needs a large pond to show off its glory. It spreads 6-12 feet. Zones 4-10

'Luciana' Water Lily

Luciana water lily
Sherry Lubic

Nymphaea 'Luciana' is a classic day-blooming variety that generously produces 6-inch-wide pink flowers over a long season. It is adaptable to low light. This plant spreads 3-4 feet wide. Zones 4-10

'Mrs. George H. Pring' Water Lily

Mrs. George H. Pring water lily
Bill Holt

This type of Nymphaea is an award-winning variety that features fragrant day-blooming single, large white blooms with a ring of showy yellow stamens at the center. Zones 8-11

'Shirley Bryne' Water Lily

Shirley Bryne water lily
Bill Holt

Nymphaea 'Shirley Bryne' bears vibrant-pink cup-shaped blooms during the day. Zones 8-11

'Afterglow' Water Lily

Afterglow water lily
Bill Holt

This variety of Nymphaea offers magical coloring (pink flowers touched with shades of yellow and orange) on its fragrant flowers during the day. Plants spread 6-8 feet. Zones 4-10

'Arc en Ciel' Water Lily

Arc en Ciel water lily
Bill Stites

Nymphaea 'Arc en Ciel' offers showy foliage; each leaf is unique, with splashes of pink, yellow, cream, and sometimes red. The pale pink flowers open in daytime and fade as they age. Plants spread to 4-5 feet wide. Zones 4-10

'Carolina Sunset' Water Lily

Carolina Sunset water lily
Peter Krumhardt

Nymphaea 'Carolina Sunset' bears 8-inch blooms of deep yellow and light yellow during the day. It spreads 4-5 feet. Zones 4-10

'Chromatella' Water Lily

Chromatella water lily
Marty Baldwin

This cultivar of Nymphaea bears small yellow flowers during the day and has attractive purple-mottled foliage. This dwarf variety is perfect for petite ponds and container gardens, and it tolerates light shade. Zones 4-10

European White Water Lily

European white water lily
Marty Baldwin

This selection of Nymphaea alba bears cup-shaped white flowers, sometimes tinged pink, around a center of showy stamens. The dark green leaves have red undersides. The plant spreads 5-6 feet. Zones 5-11

Fragrant Water Lily

Fragrant water lily
Randall Schieber

Nymphaea odorata is a North American native that's fast-growing and endowed with highly fragrant flowers. Held above the foliage, the white blooms are 6-8 inches in diameter. Plants spread 5-7 feet wide. Zones 4-10

'Helvola' Water Lily

Helvola water lily
King Au

Nymphaea 'Helvola' is a miniature day-blooming variety that produces small yellow flowers among leaves streaked with purple. It spreads to 2-3 feet. Zones 4-10

'Marliacea Carnea' Water Lily

Marliacea Carnea water lily
Bill Stites

This Nymphaea cultivar unfolds glowing white flowers with a subtle pink blush during the day. It is vigorous, flowers freely, and flourishes in larger ponds. Plants spread 4-5 feet. Zones 4-10

'Peach Glow' Water Lily

Peach Glow water lily
Bill Stites

Nymphaea 'Peach Glow' features large, luminous peach flowers during the day that pale to white as they reach the end of their four-day bloom period. This free-flowering variety continues to produce blooms into the fall. Plants spread 5-7 feet. Zones 4-10

'Texas Dawn' Water Lily

Texas Dawn water lily
Helen Norman

This cultivar of Nymphaea is a glorious day-blooming hybrid that holds its clusters of large yellow flowers up to the sun. It spreads 3-5 feet. Zones 4-10

'Hot Pink' Water Lily

Nymphaea Hot Pink
Denny Schrock

This Nymphaea variety is an award-winning tropical water lily that sports large, neon-pink flowers that remain open until late in the day. The green foliage is mottled with reddish brown. It spreads 4 feet. Zones 9-11

'Midnight' Water Lily

Midnight water lily
Peter Krumhardt

Nymphaea 'Midnight' produces small, lightly fragrant lavender blooms during the day. The plants spread 4-6 feet. Zones 8-11

'Rembrandt' Water Lily

Rembrandt water lily
Bill Stites

This variety of Nymphaea bears rose-pink blooms during the day that age to deep red. The plants spread 4-5 feet. Zones 4-10

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How long do water lily blooms last?

    Each bloom lives three to five days, but new blooms open continually throughout the growing season. Year-round blooming is possible in frost-free areas.

  • Do water lilies bloom in their first season?

    Most water lilies begin blooming only weeks after they are planted, but a few varieties may not bloom until the second year.

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