Native Aquatic Plants: a look outside, into our backyard

Most of our tanks are tropical, and so are our aquarium plants, but have you ever taken the time to look at our ponds and rivers and see what grows there? I did just that last year and I am amazed at what grows almost literally in our backyards and goes mostly unnoticed.

I had decided to try setting up a water garden in a half-barrel, so as part of the preparation work I purchased two books on water gardening and did some outdoor research. The latter was to accommodate two of my preferences: being outdoors whenever possible and valuing our native plants over more exotic or cultivated varieties. Well, I was very impressed with the selection, even out here in the prairies. A lot of the water “weeds” that boaters and fishermen are not so fond of make good pond plants. Some have even found their way into our aquaria or are related to our tropical aquarium plants.

Two very familiar plants are the common duckweed (Lemna minor) and hornwort (Ceratophyllum demersum). Yes, the very same hornwort we use in our aquaria grows profusely in many of our lakes and you will be amazed at the sizes it can reach. As for duckweed, just about any large-sized puddle will have it in abundance.

We also have one species of Sagittaria, the arrowhead. It grows in lakes, creeks and even roadside ditches. This is Sagittaria cuneata, a beautiful plant with ribbon-like submerged leaves and arrowhead-shaped aerial leaves. The flowers are usually in groups of three, have three very round petals with a yellow center in the male flowers. These flowers rarely last more than one day, but are in a flowering stalk with a few groups so the blooming period can span over a week. The plant stays small, up to 40 cm, and likes shallow areas.

Also common around our area is the bur-reed (Sparganium sp.). It looks like a cross between an arrowhead and a cattail. The flowers are very small and the fruit resembles a burr. It likes shade and makes a reedy margin on a pond.

We also have a water lily of sorts. That is the yellow pond lily or spatterdock (Nuphar variegatum). This plant grows too large for smaller ponds. It has heart-shaped leaves and yellow flowers. I have seen another plant with it that has floating leaves like a water lily, but I could not identify it from my books.

The water milfoil (Myriophyllum exalbescens) is also fairly common. Pond keepers are familiar with a related plant, the parrot’s feather (Myriophyllum proserpinacoides). Another species has become a pest: the Eurasian water milfoil. I would think twice about taking a clipping of any milfoil species from the wild, and most definitely would not “release” the plant elsewhere. You never know if what you see is one of our native species or the Eurasian introduction.

Lastly are the many reeds and rushes. My books don’t have much information on these except for the ubiquitous cattail (Typha latifolia). Our native cattail grows too large for a small pond, but it looks great in a large pond, and you could try growing it from seeds for some extra challenge!

So where are all these plants? The best places to see them are in our national and provincial parks, where plant collecting is strictly forbidden. There is one form of collecting that is actually encouraged in our parks though, and that is of information and knowledge. You can see what grows, where and how. You can also get great aquascaping ideas for your pond or aquarium. Outside these parks, keep your eyes open for roadside ditches on your way back, I don’t think anyone will mind if you take a small arrowhead or bur-reed for your pond. You will get muddy and feed a few mosquitoes though.

The best location for observing aquatic plants is Cypress Hills Interprovincial Park, on the border with Saskatchewan in southeastern Alberta. There is a boardwalk on Elkwater Lake that takes you through the cattails and you can see arrowheads, hornwort, milfoils, duckweed, and reeds. A short hike from Spruce Coulee dam takes you to a creek that is overgrown from shore to shore with arrowheads. It is quite a sight.

Around Calgary, the Bow River has crisp-leaved pondweed (Potamogeton crispus) on its shores. Glenmore Reservoir, particular the west end (The Weaselhead) and the Inglewood Bird Sanctuary ponds, are good places. The Cave and Basin area in Banff has some interesting vegetation also.

To the north, Crimson Lake, just outside Rocky Mountain House, has extensive beds of spatterdock on its south shore. It also has marsh marigolds (Caltha palustris), arrowheads, milfoils, and cattails.

If you would like to hear about my water gardening experience, come to the April meeting. I will be discussing how to set up water gardens and I would love to answer your questions and share some experiences.


Water Gardens, David Archibald and Mary Patton (eds.).

Calgary’s Natural Areas

, Harold W. Pinel (ed.)

Wildflowers Across the Prairies

, F. R. Vance, J. R. Jowsey, J. S. McLean.?