Plants for a Sustainable Water Feature

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White Water Lily Nymphea odorata

Common Water Lily, Nymphea Odorata
Photo Credit: Cody Hough/Wikipedia Commons

Plants are one of the things that make water features sustainable.  It is important for a sustainable water feature to have the right kind of plants.  

As you may have read many times, native plants are the safest ones to choose for any habitat.  This holds true for plants in a water feature as well.

Before we get started on the topic of plants for your sustainable pond or water garden, we will cover what is not sustainable when it comes to aquatic plants. 


Do No Harm, Avoid Invasive Exotics
Most of the water plants sold at garden centers and online are invasive exotics.   We cannot stress enough the importance of avoiding these invasive exotic plants. 

While this is the soundest advice possible, some folks will still opt for invasive exotics.   If this is you, be absolutely sure that you are not breaking the law in purchasing these plants.   Most invasive exotics are on federal or state noxious weed lists and it is illegal to buy, sell, possess, or introduce in various states.  Be sure to check with your state or province’s  Department of Natural Resources or Native Plant Society to verify the status of any aquatic plant.

No one interested in maintaining a sustainable water feature would ever think about disposing of any of these plants in fresh water supplies.  If you are thinning out or dividing your water plants, either give them away, with adequate instructions, or throw them away in the garbage.  They are not even fit for composting because some spores or seeds can get loose in the environment if the compost is not hot enough.

Unfortunately many plants that started out in a home water garden have ended up in natural waters.  This has caused untold damage, both financially and ecologically.   Serious long term affects have been the result of exotic water plants that got into fresh water supplies. 

One example is the Potomac River.  For years it was choked with floating Hydrilla, an invasive exotic.  Hydrilla got away from a scientist preforming an experiment.  If you want to protect the valuable resource that our natural waters are, you will only use plants that you could return to the wild.  Buy native varieties, being sure they are truly natives. 

Some of the invasive, and often illegal, exotics that are chocking our native habitats:
Alligatorweed   Alternanthera philoxeroides
Australian Stonecrop  Crassula helmsii
Brazilian Waterweed   Egeria densa
Caulerpa, Mediterranean Clone   Caulerpa taxifolia
Common Reed   Phragmites australis
Eurasian Watermilfoil   Myriophyllum spicatum
Didymo  Didymosphenia geminata
Flowering Rush   Butomus umbellatus
Giant Reed    Arundo donax
Giant Salvinia  Salvinia molesta
Hydrilla Hydrilla verticillata
Indian swampweed Hygrophila polysperma
Melaleuca Melaleuca quinquenervia
Purple Loosestrife Lythrum salicaria
Water Aloe  Stratiotes aloides
Water Chestnut Trapa natans
Water Hyacinth Eichhornia crassipes
Water Lettuce Pistia stratiotes**
Water Spinach Ipomoea aquatica

** There is discussion whether water lettuce is native or not.  Regardless, it is a highly invasive noxious weed banned in several states.

Avoid these plants at all costs.  The water supply you save will be your own.

Native Water Garden Pond Plants
To imitate a natural pond and maintain a healthy ecosystem in your water garden pond, you will want a balance of submerged plants, floating plants and plants that usually grow at the edges of a pond.  Each one has a different function and will help keep your pond clean and disease free.

American Pond Weed

American Pond Weed, Potamogeton nodosus
Photo Credit: Jim Conrad/
Wikimedia Commons


Submerged plants provide a natural filtration system for your water garden pond.  They take dissolved nitrogen nutrients from the organic waste products of the pond and turn it to life giving oxygen.  

These submerged plants are considered water grasses and are a favorite hiding and spawning areas for any small fish you may want to include in your pond water garden.  Since they are invasive, most submerged plants are best planted  in low containers.  Some native submerged plants appropriate for a water garden include Baby Pondweed, Eelgrass, Elofra, and Waterstargrass.

Floating Plants— For sustainability we recommend native varieties.  Providing shade and nitrogen nutrient absorption are the function they serve in a pond water garden.   Some attractive native varieties include Bladderwort, Giant Duckweed, Frog's-bit
Plant them in sturdy containers that can be submerged 10 to 18 inches deep. Otherwise, remove the pots from the water in late fall and store in a protected area over the winter.

Pickerel Weed Pontederia cordata

Pickerelweed, Pontederia cordata
Photo Credit: D. Gordon E. Robertson/
Wikimedia Commons

Emergent Plants  Water lilies are most familiar as floating plants, with their distinctive leaves and flowers, but they not truly floating.  The roots are submerged and the plant spreads by rhizomes.  Banana Lily (Floating Heart) and American Lotus are other emergent plants that look like floating plants.

Some other attractive emergent plants are Blue Flag, Pickerelweed, Spatterdock (Cow Lily), Arrowhead, Sedges, Sweet Flag and Water Primrose.  There are so many you will never need to resort to invasive exotics.

Aside from these beautiful flowered emergent plants, there are other emergent  that you may want to add for texture such as horsetail, arrowhead, three square, sedges or water pepper to name a few.

For the best resourced on aquatic plant life we recommend
AquaPlant  of the Texas Agrilife Extension Service
Center for Aquatic and Invasive Plants.

Care for your native water garden plants.  
Water plants tend to spread uncontrolled without any wildlife to consume them for food.  This means you should plant submerged plants and emergent plants in pots situated where they would naturally occur.  The submerged plants will sit on the bottom of your half barrel water garden pond…and you will want to raise the pots for emergent plants so they get the oxygen and sunlight they need to flourish.

Floating plants will need to be captured with a net or hand-picked when they overgrow.  If left to their own devices, they will deplete the water garden pond of oxygen and block the sunlight that sterilizes the water.

Native aquatic plants have hardiness zones, just like other plants.  You should know the winter hardiness of your plants so that you can keep them safe in cold weather.  If you have plants that don’t do as well in your area in winter, you can remove the pots and keep the plant in a sheltered location until it’s warm enough to return them to the water garden pond.



AquaPlant  of the Texas Agrilife Extension Service
Center for Aquatic and Invasive Plants
Native Plant Information Network
PLANTS Database, US Department of Agriculture
National Invasive Species Information Center

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