American lotus is often confused with water lilies. Leaves are round, much larger (up to 2 feet in diameter), bluish-green in color and attached to the stem in center. Leaves are flat if floating or conical if emergent and can stand above the water as high as 3 1/2 feet.

Flowers are large (to 10 inches across) yellowish-white to yellow with more than 20 petals. The center of the flower, the seed structure, is cone-shaped (or like an inverted shower-head) and has openings in which the seeds develop. Lotus can form large colonies and spreads by seeds and large fleshy rhizomes.