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  • Writer's pictureRyan O'Hanlon

Species Profile: White Water Lily

Updated: Mar 11, 2022

Nymphaea odorata

White Water Lily

Species Profile


White water lily is often utilized in habitat restoration projects, it also boasts a large white flower. The leaves are large with a radial split and it's common for leaves to be a few inches above the waters surface when crowded. The tops of leaves are light to dark green with maroon to purple undersides.

Where does it grow?

Although typically found in moderately deeper water than shoreline and wetland plants (6-24+ in.), it can grow in up to about 36+ inches of water. It's can also be found in shallow, low flow streams and rivers. It’s native to North America and relatively widespread even reaching into Canada.

How tough is it?

It’s a very hardy plant but is susceptible to herbivory by insects, turtles and various wildlife. As long as the root structure is moist or in shallow water, white water lily will continue to grow and put out it’s large white flowers.

How is it beneficial?

One of its greatest benefits is habitat establishment. The floating leaves, and the attached stems, provide shade and structure for smaller fishes, invertebrates, amphibians etc. This structure provides fishing targets for anglers and a unique fishing approach from the often utilized submerged/sunk trees and artificial habitat. The root structure is utilized as forage for wildlife as well. That being said, it’s often utilized for beautification projects along pond and lake shorelines because of its showy flowers. The large flowers also attract pollinators.

How does it spread/grow?

Local spread is typically via the spread of the rhizome, a root structure. This can be compared to how iris beds develop and spread. Seeds are also produced.

How to tell it from other plants?

White water lily can be confused with other water lily's, especially hybrids. Non-hybrids that can be confused with the white water lily include the yellow lily (Nymphaea mexicana) and spatterdock (Nuphar lutea). The easiest way to differentiate between white water lily and the yellow water lily, is to wait for the bloom for occur. Both typically bloom in Spring through early Fall, depending on your location. Spatterdock also has a yellow flower that is much smaller and not much larger than a half dollar coin. Spatterdock leaves are also larger, often up to 12+ in., and heart shaped.

What else should you know about this plant?

White water lily does very well in many different pond, lake and wetland scenarios with beautiful flowers showing in spring through early fall. However in small ponds, 1-2 acres and smaller, it can overtake the pond limiting access and use. These smaller water bodies offer great shallow calm water allowing the lily to spread quickly. This plant may require management in ponds this small. When working with bare-root plants, you'll find that the roots stain your hands a purple color. This usually dissipates after a few days.

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