Invasion by mats of free-floating plants is among the most important threats to the functioning and biodiversity of freshwater ecosystems ranging from temperate ponds and ditches to tropical lakes. Dark, anoxic conditions under thick floating-plant cover leave little opportunity for animal or plant life, and they can have large negative impacts on fisheries and navigation in tropical lakes. Here, we demonstrate that floating-plant dominance can be a self-stabilizing ecosystem state, which may explain its notorious persistence in many situations. Our results, based on experiments, field data, and models, represent evidence for alternative domains of attraction in ecosystems. An implication of our findings is that nutrient enrichment reduces the resilience of freshwater systems against a shift to floating-plant dominance. On the other hand, our results also suggest that a single drastic harvest of floating plants can induce a permanent shift to an alternative state dominated by rooted, submerged growth forms.