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Water Lilies

Ecological And Economic Importance

Species in the water lily family are important components of the plant communities of most freshwater lakes, ponds, and other shallow-water habitats. They provide food for many types of herbivorous animals, and a habitat substrate for others, such as the long-toed birds known as "lily-trotters" or jacanas (family Jacanidae, including Jacana spinosa of Central and South America).

Species of water lilies provide a beautiful aesthetic to aquatic habitats, which is greatly appreciated by many people. The sacred lotuses (Nelumbo nucifera and N. nelumbo) are especially important in this regard in a number of cultures. This is particularly true in India, China, Japan, and elsewhere in Asia, where sacred lotuses are featured prominently in horticultural plantings in many gardens and parks, in paintings and other visual arts, in architectural motifs and decorations, and as symbolism in literature.

Several other species in the water lily family are of minor economic importance as horticultural plants, because of the pleasing aesthetics of their floating leaves, as well as their attractive flowers. Various species of water lilies and spatterdocks are commonly planted in gardens which have shallow ponds incorporated into their design. A water lily native to North America, Nymphaea odorata, is commercially available in rose-hued flowers, as well as the wild-type white color.

Another minor use of some species is in the production of food for fishes grown in tropical aquaculture. Water lilies growing in commercial fish ponds are eaten as a food by certain herbivorous fish, and thereby contribute to the productivity of the agricultural ecosystem.

Some people eat the seeds of Nymphaea, Nelumbo, and Victoria, but this is a relatively minor use of the plants.



Hochkiss, N. Common Marsh, Underwater, and Floatingleafed Plants of the United States and Canada. New York: Dover Publications, 1972.

Judd, Walter S., Christopher Campbell, Elizabeth A. Kellogg, Michael J. Donoghue, and Peter Stevens. Plant Systematics: A Phylogenetic Approach. 2nd ed. with CD-ROM. Suderland, MD: Sinauer, 2002.

Klein, R.M. The Green World. An Introduction to Plants and People. New York: Harper and Row, 1987.

Bill Freedman


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—A perennial plant that is adapted to growing in permanently aquatic habitats.


—In the botanical sense, this refers to flowers that are bisexual, containing both male and female reproductive parts.

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Verbena Family (Verbenaceae) - Tropical Hardwoods In The Verbena Family to WelfarismWater Lilies - Species Of Water Lilies, Ecological And Economic Importance