Top Aquatic Plants for Seasonal Color

By Joe Granato, Star Ridge Aquatics, Carthage, NC Originaly published in Passion for Water Spring 2009, Revised Summer 2014

Summer is officially in full swing and backyards are abloom! Part of the watergarden passion for many is picturing the beautiful water plants and water lilies. Water plants not only add color through flowers but also add form and structure. The plants help to soften the look of the rock and help transition the feature into the surrounding landscape. This article will spotlight some of the best choices to add color and texture to your water garden.

The first and most obvious of these would be the water lilies. These are available in two forms, hardy and tropical. Hardy refers to the plant having the ability to come back after a winter of dormancy or like a perennial. This does not mean it will survive all winter temperatures so make sure you are aware of your particular hardiness zone and the hardiness of the variety you choose as these vary. Hardy water lilies bloom in a variety of colors: white, pink, yellow, salmon, peach, red and changeable. Most have green leaves but some have burgundy mottling (large blotches or spots). The edges of the leaves of hardy water lilies are all smooth.

Tropical water lilies do not have the ability to come back after winter dormancy. The plant does die in the winter but has the ability to produce tubers that can sprout and produce new plants. The reason that tropical water lilies are considered annuals is that the water temperature needs to be above 75ºF for the tubers to break dormancy and begin to grow. It then takes up to three months for the plant to reach maturity and begin blooming. In most areas it is the end of the growing season by the time they begin flowering. The leaves of tropical water lilies range from solid green to green with burgundy speckles, stripes or mottling. All tropicals have attractive serrations on the edges of the leaves.

Carolina Queen LotusThe next group of plants that provide phenomenal color and structure are water lotus. The lotus is a perennial with very large leaves and large, showy flowers. The leaves of the lotus are completely round with a slight vase shape. These leaves are unique in shape and create an attractive architectural look to the water garden. These plants need very large pots to grow and bloom properly and require significant shelf space to support their large pot size. Lotus pots range in size from 18" to 36". Some lotus varieties can reach a height of 6' and a spread of the same. The color pallet for lotus includes white, yellow, pink, red and some combinations of these.

The final group of aquatic plants for adding color is referred to as bog or marginal plants. These are plants that grow in the shallow water along the side of the pond and stream edge. Some of the plants that bear mention are the water iris, water cannas, papyrus, taros and pitcher plants.

Iris VirginicaThere are many types of water iris available for the water garden. The Iris pseudacorus (yellow water iris or yellow flag), Iris virginica (southern blue flag or blue water iris), and Louisiana iris are best for iris placed in the water garden. The colors of the flowers on these varieties range from white to yellow to purple to red. These irises are considered true water iris and can be grown in up to 6" of water. 

The bog types of iris are the Iris ensata (Japanese iris) and the Iris sibirica (Siberian iris). Bog irises grow quite well with wet feet but not submerged. These are best planted along the stream where the soil surface is above water but the soil is thoroughly saturated with water.

The water cannas are among the showiest of the bog plants. Some such as the Canna Americana variegata (Canna Bengal Tiger) have boldly variegated foliage of green and yellow and are topped with bright orange flowers. Another group of cannas ideal for the water garden are the Longwood Cannas. These were hybridized at Longwood Gardens from the Canna glauca. Varieties such as Canna ‘Ra’ (yellow), Canna ‘Erebus’ (pinky peach), and Canna ‘Endeavor’ (red) are named varieties. The foliage of these cannas has a blue-green color and can reach a height of 6'.

Dwarf PapyrusThe Papyrus is a group of foliage plants that are grown for form and texture. Some of the varieties are the Cyperus haspans (dwarf papyrus) that reaches a mature height of 30", Cyperus alternifolia (umbrella palm) which reaches 48" and Cyperus papyrus (Egyptian papyrus) reaches 84" or more. All of these are in the grass family and do not produce showy flowers, but are beautiful just the same.

The Taros are in the Elephant Ear family and are grown in damp soil to a few inches of water. There is a difference between taros and elephant ears. Taros are of the genus Colocasia and Elephant Ears are of the genus Alocasia. Alocasia will rot if planted in water. Taros are grown for incredible colored, large foliage that ranges in color from green with purple mottling, green with purple stems, black with purple stems and green with violet stems. These plants can reach a height of 48" and create a dramatic impact.

The last group is the Pitcher Plants. They are carnivorous plants, which means they eat insects as a source of food. Pitcher plants do not need additional fertilizer and, in fact, additional fertilizer will kill these plants. Pitcher plants grow in damp peat soil and are great to plant in pockets along the stream. These plants vary in form and color from short with deep purple foliage to tall with white foliage. All have interesting flowers and unique tube shaped leaves, which are used to digest the insects that they trap. Be sure to buy tissue cultured specimens so that the endangered wild species is not lost.

These are just a sampling of aquatic plants; there are hundreds of varieties to choose from. Almost any color, size, form and texture you may be looking for can be found in the aquatic plant world and they are more affordable and more readily available than ever before. Enjoy your passion, enjoy your water garden and remember … it is a garden, so plant it!