"Native" plants

"Native" plants

"Native" means something different, obviously, depending on where you live. In south-east Asia Cryptocorynes are natives, not the exotic tropical plants we here in North America and Europe pay through the nose for, so, for purpose of this column we'll be referring to North American plants as "natives", that is, "native to where I live".

As anybody who has watched enough Star Trek knows, in the twenty third century you can simply say "computer, how many species of commonly kept aquarium plants grow in North America"; with subsecond respond you'll have your answer. Those of us who are not capable of time travel, stuck here in the 20th... errr... 21st century have no such resource - that I know of - available to us, not like the clever work done by Dr. Huber on Killifish found at Is this too subtle a hint for some of you computer literati aquatic gardners to emulate Jean's tome for the plant kingdom? Do I need to beg? Provide server space? Database tools? What?

But, suffice it to say there are a plethora of aquatic plants in the wild of North America that will seem awfully familiar to aquarists, and no I don't just mean all covered in silt and algae showing leggy and poor growth. It's somewhat comforting to find that mother nature sometimes does a lousy a job as we do.

In the early 1960's, our family, being recent immigrants from Wales, took up camping as a low-budget holiday idea in the summer. While the possability exists this scarred us all for life exists as evidenced by the fact I doubt you could drag any of us into a tent again (well, except of my brother, but then he's always been a little odd) it was at the time, for a your budding naturalist an awesome experience. My most vivid memory from this time was related to the subject of this column. As kids, swimming was the sole point of these vacations, and given our druthers we'd swim from the moment we woke up until it got dark and the bugs forced is to take cover, smothered in deet, around a smoky and hot campfire.

It was somewhere in the provence of Quebec, I don't remember where exactly, and it was probably the Expo '67 camping trip as I don't think we camped there other than that. I believe it was on the St. Lawrence river. I was wading out, my feet sinking into the sandy bottom when all of a sudden I was stopped dead in my tracks with a sight that nearly terrified me - for a moment, transfixed, I stared in awe at what my eyes surely could not believe.

I was staring at one of the most beautiful gardens I'd ever seen. You couldn't arrange anything so beautiful if you tried. Perfect plants, no silt, no algae - dark green Cabomba, some sort of grass - either an Val or a Sag - some leafy plant that I don't remember now - possibly a Potamogeton. There seemed to be acres of the stuff spread out in front of me. It was as if it were a freshwater equivalent of a coral reef. It was utterly stunning.

I've seen lots of plants in the wild since then, but never something this beautiful, it looked like one of those pictures of carefully cultivated Dutch, German or Japanese plant tanks.

Living in suburbia as we did this was about all I ever saw in terms of wild aquatic plants. Even the creek I would play in as a boy and catch minnows, crayfish and the odd (and rather striking) red and green darter was fairly devoid of vegetation, save the ubiquitous thread algae that to this day is my lifes nemesis. There may have been the odd strand of Hornwort, perhaps a bit of Val or Sag but I may be imagining this. It was not till I moved out of the city that I would again see any sort of plant diversity in its natural state.

Perhaps other people who grew up out here in the country are familiar with the various plant species that grow in the rivers and lakes up here, but I was fairly shocked when sitting on our riverbank one day and a clump of Riccia fluitans floated by downstream. Of course I grabbed it and of course I killed it, just like I do with cultivated Riccia. I really have no luck with this stuff, its need for soft water always messed me up. But I have to say, if it needs soft water then what was it doing in the Moira river. "Moira" of course, being an Indian word for "liquid rock". Perhaps it was a population of Riccia that was used to cool (but hard and alkaline!) water, for at this time of the year the river was about 65-68F while my tanks were much warmer. It lasted a few weeks, then faded away.

Riccia is remarkably widespread - it's found almost everywhere except Europe, Africa and the antarctic, that is, North America, Mexico, Brazil, India, Japan, Borneo, New Zealand, Samoa and possibly other places. Rather an odd range - this plant gets around.

I will admit to having some success with it in Los Angles when I used reverse osmosis water mixed with enough LA tapwater to provide some mineral content. When happy, and kept alone it will take over any tank its in, producing a dense emerald green mat at the surface that is utterly unsurpassed as a hiding place for fry, especially Anabantids and Killifish. It's fragile stiff, but any piece that breaks off grows into a new plant. Its only real enemy is algae and if that gets out of control it can choke it out pretty quickly.

It's been popular of late - and this idea seems to have come out of Japan - to make carpets, or lawns, out of this stuff. While it naturally floats just below the surface, it can be tied down with monofilament line or covered with a plastic grid of the correct mesh such that it looks like a lawn. It will be continuously breaking off bits and pieces that float up to the surface and requires a fair amount of care to keep a Riccia lawn intact, but the effect is utterly stunning when it's in good nick.

Having read every book on Aquatic plants I could get my hands on I considered myself pretty jaded. I didn't think it was possible that I'd see a plant in water I didn't know what it was on sight. Hah! One day in late April/early May I was trapzing though a pond collecting mosquito larva (and thread algae - arrg!) when I noticed the oddest plant. It looked a bit like Riccia but instead of haveing small branching equal width sections it had what sort of looked like triangular leaves instead, connected to each other kind of like a fat Riccia. It grew the same way, floating just below the surface. Of course I took some home and of course I killed it. I suspect it doesn't fare too well in the 70-80F range my tanks would normally hover at this time of the year, for it was perfectly happy in the 50-60 degree water that filled this pond.

The plant was, of course, Lemna triscula - "star duckweed" also known as "ivy duckweed". A quick web search indicates it's used as a test subject for heavy metal toxicity while its primary decorative use is in outdoor ponds; it can be found on pond stockists lists in Canada, Russia and Europe, while it also shows up on pages referring to "aquatic weed control". One mans meat is another mans poison I guess. All in all it's a neat plant and if you can find an algae free starter culture and can give it low enough temperatures it's a worthy addition to any native tank. I suppose it's reasonable to assume that it may be fond in warmer climates and that that may be more appropriate for aquarium use, but I'm guessing - one thing is clear - it's not a common aquarium plant and I would have to assume there's a reason for that... which is a shame, it's really neat looking stuff.

The legend had circulated in the Canadian Killifish Association ( that Echinodorus cordifolius - the "Radican" sword of my youth - could be collected near Trenton, Ontario. That's not far from here and while I never saw any growing in and around lakes and rivers nearer to home I had always planned to go find and collect some one day; it's one of my favorite plants. Imagine my shock then one day walking along the shore of Stoco lake in Tweed and seeing a couple of decent sized "radicans" growing on the beach at the waters edge. Using makeshift instruments - a borrowed spoon - I dug two of them up. I was unprepared to find this specie growing here and the only thing I was less prepared for was the smell from the soil around the root mass. Ferment some septic tank contents and add a good dose of toxic waste and you'd have a close spproximation. This is what always kills me about ultra-clean gravel in aquariums, in many cases it ain't that way in nature!

Proud of my great find I announced on the Aquatic Plants Mailing List ( ) that I had found this species growing locally, all the while thinking it rather odd as I was really under the impression this plant came from Brazil or at the very least some place that wasn't covered in snow and ice for 6 months of the year, but, spurred on by my local Riccia find I just figured mother nature was a perverse lady.

I would like to take this opportunity to thank the denizens of that list for not calling me an idiot outright as of course Echinodorus cordifolius is not found in Trenton, Ontario, or anywhere in Canada in the wild. Nor was there any question what this plant was: Alisma plantago-aquatica. The good news: it looks just like a "radican" sword; the bad news: it doesn't grow underwater, it's a marginal plant best grown outdoors on the shore of a pond, which makes sense given that's where I found it. Alisma flowers (very) easily and reproduces so well it's considered almost a weed. The flowers, while fairly small are not unattractive and grow on a huge flowering spike - it's a very decorative plant. You can see pictures of the plant growing in my backyard at

Ok, so far we've talked about plants that either don't do well in "tropical" tanks or only grow emersed, now lets look at a staple aquarium plant that's found growing naturally in North America: Bacopa amplexicaulis. Found in the southern and central US this fleshy leaved plant gives off a distinctive aroma, unusual for an aquatic plant. While a strong grower, it needs pretty intense light and prefers lower temperatures - 65 - 68 - than most aquarium plants, but hey, so do lace-pants, whose requirements are the same; this would make an ideal companion plant. Despite it's perhaps annoying requirements, Bacopa is a terrifically attractive plant being a somewhat different shade of green than a lot of aquatics, it's sort of a light love color that can verge on almost brown under some conditions.

The genus Potamogeton consists of over 120 species found worldwide. While few are well suited to the aquarium there are a couple that are, most notably P. gayi. You won't find this in any body of water in North America, it's a South American species; what you'll find here up North is almost certainly P. perfoliatus, a strikingly attractive plant, that, with remarkable tolerance to conditions that would do in many aquarium plants: it thrives in calcium rich water, endures salt to the point where it's found in brackish water and will also grow emersed. Its opposing transparent oblong leaves are fairly attractive and it's possible to find references to it in online searches as being used in sold for aquarium use although in many cases what you'll find are reports of it having escaped into the wild; the stuff is found almost everywhere from right here to New Zealand. I can't admit to ever having tried to grow this plant in my tanks but in writing this I think I've talked myself into it and plan on giving it a go this season. It grows with abundance in lakes around here, but not in rivers, which is odd as the conventional literature states it grows in slow moving streams. Whatever.

Ludwigia species can be found all over North America; it's certainly the most abundant species in the natural pond in our backyard. The stuff grows like, well, a weed.

And speaking of weeds, the genus Myriopyllum, another plant found worldwide has attained true weed status: it's importation and culture is banned in many parts of North America as it does a superb job of choking waterways due to it's alarmingly rapic growth.

There is a general trend here: many aquarium plants come from tropical regions, yet they have counterparts that live in more northern climates, but their adaptation to colder areas make them generally unsuitable for aquarium use. But, if you have an unheated tank some of these may work well for you.

Before collecting any plant from the wild there's two things you need to be aware of and the most obvious, and pressing is: check local laws. While you're unlikely to get into trouble for picking a sprig of this or a cutting of that, you never know and it's better to be safe than sorry. The other thing is plants collected from the wild may have all sorts of nasties on them: snails at the very least, and sometimes other forms of life can be hangers on. The best way to combat these pets is with Alum - one tablespoon per gallon. After a 5-10 minute dip in this, plants will be unaffected, yet snails and other pests will be effectively killed.