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Gardening: Resources for enriching the plants and animals in your backyard.

Aquatic Plants

Well-chosen aquatic plants can help attract frogs, turtles, dragonflies, birds, and more. Which of the following three species would be the best aquatic plant for a native wildlife garden.

Yellow Pond-lily Nuphar lutea
Water Hyacinth Eichhornia crassipes
Soft Rush Juncus effusus

The best choice is Soft Rush. The key to attracting wildlife to a water garden or pond is to have a variety of plants, including some growing on the water's edge, some growing in shallow water, and some that float on the surface. The plants should provide cover and/or food both above and below the surface. Juncus effusus and other rushes, when planted in water, provide hiding places for tadpoles, frogs, small fish, and other aquatic critters below the surface. Aboveground, their stems provide plenty of cover for birds and their seeds provide food. The vertical stems also play a role in the metamorphosis of dragonflies and damselflies. When fully grown, a dragonfly naiad (the aquatic immature stage) crawls up the stem of rush or a similar plant, splits open along the midline of the thorax, and the adult emerges. Dragonflies are fascinating to watch and are beneficial to a backyard water garden as they prey on mosquitoes. Sedges (Carex), bulrushes (Schoenoplectus and Scirpus species), cattails (Typha), and many grass species can play a similar role in a water garden.

Yellow Pond-lily, as well as other native water-lilies (Nymphaea), are beautiful plants for the water garden. Their large floating leaves serve as resting spots for frogs, dragonflies, butterflies, and other creatures, and provide shade to animals living below the surface. Several eastern water-lilies of the genus Nymphaea planted out of their range in California have grown out of control and been classified as noxious weeds there. It is always wise to choose species that are native to your particular area.

Water Hyacinth is one of the most noxious of all plants introduced into North America. It is classified as noxious and/or invasive in nearly every state it occurs in, partly in thanks to its astonishing growth rate. In Florida, where this South American species first appeared, it once covered 125,000 surface acres of inland lakes and waterways. According to the University of Florida Center for Aquatic Plants, each acre may contain up to 200 tons of the plant. In addition to making some waters unnavigable and inaccessible to swimmers and anglers, Water Hyacinth crowds out native plants and smothers the life beneath the surface, preventing essential sunlight and oxygen from reaching the waters below. This plant is now aggressively controlled in Florida, but it has spread throughout the southeast and is found as far north as New York and as far west as California.

This article is excerpted from "How Wild Is Your Garden?", a native plant and wildlife gardening quiz. Take the quiz and learn more.

Visit our Native Gardening and Invasive Plants Guide to learn more about gardening with wildlife and the environment in mind.