Water plants are widely considered the best way to enhance water features. Sometimes called aquatic plants, there is a water plant for virtually every type of water feature, from the smallest tabletop fountains to multi-level streams and expansive ponds. The type of water plant that will best suit your landscape is largely determined by your requirements, as well as the growing characteristics of each plant. Consider the USDA Hardiness Zone, growth habit and mature size, sun or shade requirements, and ideal planting conditions. To help you sort through the options, the Better Homes and Gardens Plant Encyclopedia includes a sortable list of aquatic plants, which you can refine further by characteristic and use. The section also includes practical design ideas and tips to help your water plants flourish in your landscape. View a list of water plants by common name or scientific name below.
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Truly a plant to wow your friends and neighbors, Amazon lily is nothing short of magnificent. In a large pond, this plant's leaves can reach 6 feet across and are covered in spiny prickles. The flowers, which appear in summer, start as thorn-covered green buds that open to large white masterpieces that fade pink. The blooms have the fragrance of ripe pineapple.
Arrowhead, which earned its name because of its arrow-shape leaves, is a no-fuss water garden plant that adds a lush, tropical feel to ponds, pools, and water features. Several species are available, many of which are native to areas of North America. They all bear attractive three-petal flowers throughout summer and are largely carefree once established. Check carefully when you buy: Some species are considered invasive and have naturalized in streams, ponds, and other waterways.
Several types of arrowhead plant form starchy tubers (similar to small potatoes) that can be harvested and eaten by humans. Birds and other creatures also eat these tubers, making the plant a valuable choice for attracting wildlife.
Native to North America and parts of Europe and Asia, cattails feel right at home in wetlands and boggy soil. They add a bold vertical presence to water gardens and ponds, thanks to their height (4 to 6 feet); upright, swordlike leaves; and familiar cylindrical fruiting spike displayed by female plants after summer flowering and pollination. The fruiting spikes, which persist through winter, are a favorite landing spot for red-winged blackbirds and dragonflies. Cattails also provide a valuable habitat for wetland birds and other wildlife.
Along with their contributions to landscaping projects, cattails are collected for use in both fresh and dried arrangements and eaten as produce. The rhizomes of narrowleaf cattail Typha angustifolia can be peeled and cooked like potatoes, for example. Young spring shoots, which have a nutty flavor, can be used like asparagus. Stay safe, though—always wash cattails before adding them to the menu, and never consume them if they come from areas with contaminated water.
Duckweed forms a fast-growing cover over pond and other water garden surfaces. Its free-floating network of disc-shape leaves spreads in a textured mat that looks like thyme foliage. The leaves, actually fronds, send out new foliage from their margins. Duckweed is a fast grower and will require thinning frequently. It is a source of nutrition for many forms of wildlife.
Add a soft, delicate look to your water garden with fairy moss, which is also known as water fern or mosquito fern. Koi love to nibble on its soft, fuzzy foliage. Because it floats freely on the surface, shading the water as it spreads, fairy moss helps to reduce algae growth. Its colorful fall leaf display is a great bonus; the foliage darkens to purple-red at season’s end. Bring some clumps indoors to overwinter in an aquarium or pan of water to replenish the pond supply in the next season.
Though it bears the common name fairy moss, this plant isn’t a moss at all but rather an aquatic fern. It’s native to areas of South America.
Native to Asia and Australia, the lotus is considered sacred by the Buddhist and Hindu religions. It’s also prized by water gardeners because it’s both beautiful and easy to grow. Lotus stalks start out in muddy soil and water, and end in sweetly fragrant white-to-pink flowers that can grow as large as 12 inches across. Although spectacular, the flowers are short-lived—appearing for only a few days followed by large ornamental seed pods. Also intriguing to observe, the plant’s canopy of waxy blue-green leaves can reach two to three feet in diameter—either lying flat on the water or rising up several feet above the water line.
Lotus grows best in full sun and an aquatic feature without flowing water—which has the potential to disrupt growth and flower formation. Some lotus varieties require a massive amount of water surface to mature, while others do just fine in small water gardens. Read plant descriptions carefully when selecting a lotus for your landscape.
Papyrus is an easy-to-grow water plant with a rich, long history. Native to areas of Africa, the plant has been used for thousands of years to make a paperlike material. But papyrus is also loved in gardens.
Papyrus sends out grassy sprays of leaves that jut out from the stems like a fireworks display. The leafy clusters may form plantlets that you can separate and grown individually. Grow papyrus in a weighted pot so that the stems rise above the water surface in a pond, or grow it in moist soil at water's edge.
Parrot's feather is a versatile plant for ponds and water gardens. Grow it underwater to oxygenate water, provide fish a place to hide, and reduce on algae. Or let parrot’s feather float on the water to provide shade. It can also be grown in wet soil at the water's edge. It earned its moniker from its dense plumes of fine-texture foliage. Parrot’s Feather has both submerged and emergent foliage. The emergent stems will root near the shoreline via rhizomes.
Check local restrictions before planting parrot’s feather because it is considered an invasive species in some areas. It can reproduce rapidly in natural areas, clogging waterways and crowding out native species.
Quiet ponds and wetlands are excellent growing places for low-maintenance and easy-to-grow pickerel weed. Its blue-green, heart-shape leaves have a waxy feel and provide a backdrop for the plant’s purple-blue flower spikes. The 6-inch-long flowers bloom from the bottom up and decorate the plant nonstop from summer through fall. A valuable source of nectar for bees and butterflies, pickerel weed beckons winged visitors to the garden. Fish often take shelter in pickerel weed and dragonflies and damselflies often lay their eggs on the plant stems near the water.
Pitcher plant has a Dr. Seuss-like quality that draws onlookers to its unique leaves and whimsical, upright habit. At home in soggy soil, pitcher plant has exacting growing requirements. In nature it grows in full sun and moist but not watery soil, from Minnesota to Florida. Mimic its native environment and you’ll have success with pitcher plant, too.
Sorrel begins growth in early spring, providing salad greens when few other edibles are available. The plant thrives in full sun or partial shade, and it prefers moist soil. Some types can be grown in shallow water. Sorrel develops a mound of foliage that grows 12-18 inches tall, and it sends up a flower stalk with green flowers that mature to reddish-brown seeds. Remove seed stalks to prevent the plant from self-sowing.
Sweet flag is a grasslike, low-maintenance perennial. It grows well in moist soil or several inches of standing water, making it an excellent choice when used as an accent plant in water gardens or moist, marshy areas along shorelines. Sweet flag spreads slowly over time via rhizomes and forms a dense groundcover, but it is not considered invasive. The foliage of sweet flag has a light, sweet scent when crushed.
Also called hardy water canna, thalia has large paddle-shape blue-green leaves. Add this fast-growing water plant to ponds, and rain gardens. Thalia blooms in late summer, sending tall flower stalks above the foliage. The violet-purple flowers last for weeks.
Water clover looks lucky and lives up to its name because of its floating leaves. This versatile plant thrives in just about any water garden, even in shade, making it a great choice for beginning water gardeners.
Water hyacinth is a friend or foe, depending on where it is growing. A vigorous water plant, water hyacinth is invasive and is illegal to plant in many states, primarily Zones 9 to 11. So be sure to check local regulations if you’re interested in planting water hyacinth. In areas where it is legal, the plant is a colorful and texture-rich addition to water gardens. Water hyacinth plays a helpful role in water gardens, where it provides shelter and spawning area for small fish. The dense foliage also inhibits algae growth and helps keep water clear.
This water plant is grown for its beautiful, velvety foliage that really does resemble a dense carpet of lettuce heads flowering on the water. It can be an important plant for ponds as it shades the water and gives small fish a place to hide. In cold climates, treat this tender floating plant as an annual and replace every year.
Note: In warm-winter climates, water lettuce can be invasive. Check to see if the plant is banned in your area before planting it.
Water lilies, the iconic flowers of water gardens, contribute to good pond health. By covering the water surface, they shade the water and keep it cooler, which helps control algae that thrives in heat. Water lilies also shelter fish from birds of prey 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.