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Floating Plants for the Water Garden

Published on March 9th 2019
Surface-dwelling plants offer some of the most beautiful and curious ornamentals around, from the fairytale waterlily to the humble duckweed. Floaters relish full sun, but be warned - some species are invasive.
Floating plants offer cover and food for aquatic wildlife and reduce algal growth by shading the surface and consuming excess nutrients.

Plants with anchors

These aquatic plants are rooted in the pond bed or container and grow in much the same way as herbaceous plants, producing leaves and flowers during the growing season, and dying back to a submerged crown over winter.

Water Lily

Nymphaea spp.

Water lily (Nymphaea spp.): With a smorgasbord of colours and sizes available, the water lily can fill a half-barrel or a lake, so make sure you choose the correct variety. The iconic flowers are produced all summer long on healthy plants.
Water hawthorn makes a good alternative to lilies for slow-flowing water or light shade.
Water hawthorn (Aponogeton distachyos): Oblong-oval leaves and unusual, sumptuously-scented white flowers are this plant’s trademark.
A close up of the white flower of Cape Pond Lily

Water Hawthorn

Aponogeton distachyos

Golden club (Orontium aquaticum): The leaves of this plant begin by floating, but eventually leave the water’s surface, as do its quirky yellow and white candle-like flowers. Prefers shallower depths and a deep substrate.
Some flowering Orontium aquaticum plants

Golden Club

Orontium aquaticum

Water Fringe

Nymphoides peltata

Water fringe (Nymphoides peltate): Not a true water lily. A pretty, but invasive species which, although useful for quick coverage, can be a nuisance due to its prolific runners.
The yellow water lily is a native species that requires a lot of space.
Yellow water lily (Nuphar lutea): Also known as brandy bottle due to its fascinating seed pods, Nuphar have flowers resembling a giant buttercup and large, spade-shaped leaves.

Water Lily

Nuphar spp.

The following plants require either winter protection or additional heat but are fun for the more adventurous water gardener: sacred lotus (Nelumbo spp.), floating four-leaf clover (Marsilea quadrifolia) and water poppy (Hydrocleys nymphoides).
A close up of a pink and yellow Nelumbo nucifera flower


Nelumbo nucifera

Marsilea quadrifolia

Marsilea quadrifolia

Hydrocleys nymphoides

Hydrocleys nymphoides

No shackles

The true floaters do not root into a substrate. Instead, they sit on the surface with their roots dangling in the water column. They are incredibly cheap and easy-to-grow but be warned - many are invasive.
Never introduce any non-native floating plant into the wild. Water hyacinth is now a huge issue in many tropical countries.
Water hyacinth (Eichornia crassipes) is now banned under EU law in the UK. Water lettuce (Pistia stratiotes) and fairy moss (Azolla spp.) are also a growing concern as winters become milder.

Water Hyacinth

Eichhornia spp.

Water Lettuce

Pistia spp.


Azolla spp.

Most hardy floaters sink overwinter, often as dormant buds, to rise again in spring.
Duckweeds (Lemna & Wolffia spp.): Our iconic duckweed is perfect for a nature pond. Also, try ivy-leaved duckweed for something different. Wolffia has the smallest flowers of any plant!


Lemna spp.

Frogbit (Hydrocharis morsus-ranae): One of our most charming wildflowers. Plants have miniature lily pads and tri-petalled, white flowers all summer long.


Hydrocharis spp.

Water chestnut (Trapa natans): Used in Asian cuisine, these rosette floaters produce rhomboid, serrated leaves.
Larger than most on this list, water soldier has become an invasive nuisance in North America.
Water soldier (Stratiotes aloides): An odd plant that looks a little like a pineapple top peeping above the surface. Pretty white flowers.

Water Soldier

Stratiotes aloides

The following are tender perennials, or half-hardy annuals in the UK, and are fun to experiment with:
Floating fern (Salvinia natans): Unusual leaves arranged in curious patterns. No flowers, but the herringbone-patterned foliage makes it worth growing.


Salvinia spp.

Mosaic plant (Ludwigia sedioides): A stunning little plant with somewhat tessellating leaves and yellow flowers. Requires warm temperatures.

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