North American Natives

(Unedited version)
Originally appeared in the August 2005 issue of
Tropical Fish Hobbyist Magazine

As you roam across the country on your summer vacations this year, you may want to take a closer look underneath the lake your floating, swimming, fishing or boating on. Many wonderful plants suitable for the aquarium can be found in waters across the United States, Canada and Mexico. Some you may see are well known in the aquarium hobby. Others may be less well known but still are perfectly suitable for the aquarium.

Looking into the natural waters can be a very interesting experience. The landscape is often unique. In and around your local ponds, lakes, creeks, streams and rivers there's an incredible world that few people even notice. It's also very interesting to compare the habitat in natural waters with those in the aquarium.

You may notice that there can be a lot of algae in natural waters. It's often a major part of the local aquatic ecosystems. Very often, particularly in ponds, lakes, or rivers the water can be quite dirty, and even when the water itself is clear often a coating of dust like particles cover most surfaces under the water.

There are also a lot of different forms of aquatic life in natural waters that you don't see in the home aquarium. Natural freshwater habitats are a lot more like reef aquariums than you may realize. Many insects spend the early part of their lives in the water, and a number spend their entire lives in the water. You may also see many small crustaceans, like gammarus and a few larger ones like shrimp and crawfish.

Once you realize what's under the water you may wonder can you take this wonderful bounty home and put it in to your aquarium. The answer is mixed. Different places, whether country, state or province, have different laws regarding if and what you may collect. Special areas, like designated parks, will probably have different laws and collecting is more likely to be prohibited. You may also find you can collect some plants but others are protected. The only safe way to collect is to check with the local laws for the location you would like to collect in.

After you've checked and found out what and where you may collect, there are a few things you should be aware of. First, all those insects and crustaceans you see in natural waters will very likely be on the plants too. Most of them shouldn't be a problem, and many will make nice fish snacks. But some invertebrates can actually catch and eat small fish. Dragonfly larvas are often encountered. So check plants carefully for large predatory insects. Rinsing the plants off will also help remove unwanted hitchhikers.

Next remember that these plants were in different water, the pH, hardness, lighting and temperatures where the plants were growing in the wild, are could be quite different from the environment in your home aquarium. The plants will need time to acclimate. There may be some die off as they get used to their new surroundings. Unfortunately some plants just may not transfer and you should be ready to clean up any dead plants or parts. You don't want a huge load of dead stuff in your aquarium. That said its not unusual for the plants you buy at your local shop to have a lot of die off too, since many are grown emergent and the leaves that grow in the air usually die off when put into water.

Now on to some of the plants you may encounter. Some are pretty common in the aquarium trade already, and you may see them in your local aquarium or pet stores regularly. It would take a book to cover them all so I'll try to just highlight some that may not be covered in your general aquarium plant books, while briefly mentioning some of the more common aquarium plants you may find.


One of the more interesting plants you are likely to encounter aren't really plants at all. Chara is a macro algae, similar to kelp or many types of seaweed. Chara is in the order Charales which also include similar algae, Nitella. Many scientists believe these are the link between algae and land plants. Though Chara are very common in North America, they are also found all over the world except on Antarctica.

Chara and Nitella are similar in appearance to an old aquarium standby, hornwort. Because they are really algae Charales don't have the same sort of internal structure as a true plants leaf and stem. The main stem like structures of Charales are called a thallus, while the root like structures are called rhizoids.

Chara are often called stoneworts because lime forms on the algae surface, making them brittle. This characteristic has helped provide a good fossil record of related algae from as long ago as 300 million years. Chara have another interesting characteristic, they give off an unusual odor when the stems are crushed. This gives it another commonly used name muskgrass. The smell is often described as skunk or garlic like, I don't think the smell is nearly as strong as either of those and though it's not something I would call fragrant, I don't find it offensive and wouldn't use that as a reason not to try growing some. Nitella don't get the encrusting lime or have the odor that Chara does.

Chara often is a very large and important part of many fresh water environments. I've seen huge cushiony beds of Chara covering large portions of the lake floor. They are usually considered favorably to the environment of the waters they inhabit and are interesting in natural waters or the aquarium.

Each species of Chara will have its own specific requirements. In general they like good lighting but some can grow in lower light levels also. New plants can be started with a cutting. New holdfasts will grow from the node, so this part should be placed under the substrate.

Grassy Plants

There are several grassy looking plants that you won't see too often for sale, but are very common in native waters and can also grow well in the aquarium. They may be somewhat difficult to tell apart at first but many of them can grow very well in the aquarium.


(Photo to the right.)

Potamogeton species are not only in North America, but spread all over the world. They are often called pondweeds. I've seen as many as 4 different species in one lake alone. These are really interesting plants that have many different characteristics. Some have long thin grass like leaves, others have wider flat or wavy leaves, some even have flat floating leaves somewhat like water lilies. They range in color from the usual green to very reddish. Most are considered a valuable plant, but at least one species, P. crispus, now in North America is an invasive weed brought over from Europe. Potamogeton can spread through runners similar to Valisneria, but they can also often be propagated with stem clippings.


Najas are somewhat similar in appearance to some of the Potamogetons but are much more branching. They are sometimes called naiads. The different Najas are usually very similar in appearance and difficult to tell apart. One exception is N. marina which can grow naturally in brackish and fresh water. It has spiny leaves and is called the spiny naiad. Najas can grow extremely quickly in the aquarium and are very useful as a breeding plant.


(Photo below.)

Zosterella is similar in appearance to the Potamogeton and Najas. It looks a lot like some of the tall field grasses. If there's one thing I can say about Zosterella dubia, it grows. This is one of the fastest growing and hardiest plants I've had the pleasure of growing. You'll quickly be pruning your aquarium if you try Zosterella. The plants also bloom easily. Branches grow out of the top of the tank and small yellow flowers quickly blossom out of the buds that form above the water surface.

Of course the different plants requirements will vary, but in general I've found all three of these types of grassy looking plants can grow very well in the aquarium. They will usually do very well under high light levels but many will also grow under more moderate lighting.

Aquarium Standards

Many of the plants you may encounter, particularly in the warmer southern states, are old aquarium standards. Field guides can be helpful as many of these plants grow along the shore with their roots in the water and stems and leaves mostly growing out of the water. Emersed leaves can grow much differently in shape and color than those grown under the water.

Bacopa caroliniana

Bacopa caroliniana is a medium green plant, with occasional yellow to light orange tints under water. It can get a darker red tint on the emersed leaves. B. caroliniana likes to grow along the waters edge. It has small violet flowers that are an attractive contrast to the dark red tint on the emersed leaves. In the aquarium it needs good lighting to grow well.

Cabomba caroliniana

Cabomba caroliniana has been used in the aquarium for many years. These stemmed plants have wonderful frilly leaves that can also show red or purple tints. When nearing the top of the water C. caroliniana grows very different lily pad like leaves, and puts out small floating flowers. Cabomba can be a bit difficult and need good lighting to grow well in the aquarium.


Echinodorus species can also be found in North America, though sword plants are often thought of as a South American plant due to the wide usage of the Amazon sword plant. Several swords including E. barteri, cordifolius and the pygmy chain sword, E. tenellus are native to North America.


Ludwigia is a beautifully colored stem plant that's been an aquarium favorite for years. It can also be found growing naturally along the water edge. The bottoms of the leaves are a wonderful reddish purple in the aquarium, and it is relatively easy to grow in moderate to high lighting.


Sagittaria are also on the list of North American natives. There are several large species with edible tubers called arrowheads. These aren't really practical for the aquarium because of their size but can be suitable for the pond. Smaller ribbon leaved Sagittaria kurziana and the very similar looking Vallisneria americana can also be found and are wonderful aquarium plants. Once acclimated they can grow extremely well in the aquarium.

Invasive Species

Sadly not all the plants you may encounter belong where they are found. There are several introduced aquatic plants that have become invasive, clogging waterways and choking out native plants. Most states have lists of invasive plants that have been found in that state, that are accessible from their web sites. Remember to never release anything from your aquarium into natural waters.

Going Native

There are so many wonderful native aquatic plants in North America that there just isn't room in one column to discuss them all. Finding them in their native habitats can be a wonderful experience. Be sure to check out your local laws regarding collecting, have a look at what is out there, and enjoy your native plants.

Questions or Comments?

If you have questions or Comments about this column, join the Natural Aquariums Forum and post them here.

Welcome to the Jungle | Into The Forest | The Creepy Crawlies | A Clearing in the Thicket | Algae Eaters for the Planted Aquarium
North American Natives | Why things go wrong Pt 1 | Why things go wrong Pt 2 (Algae) | Algae Eating Shrimp | Lo-Tech Tanks
Welcome to the Fish Room | The Stemmed Plants | Mosses | A Livebearer Biotope | Planted Tank Social | The Genus Hygrophila | Cyanobacteria
Easy Plants | What I Did Last Summer | Decorations in the Planted Tank | Botany-An Introduction to Plant Biology | Botany-Anatomy of a plant
Botany-How Plants Work | Easy Rosettes | Going High-Tech | Floating Plants | Dealing with Success | Bringing the Outside In | Vallisneria
Hair Algae | Flowering Aquarium Plants Part 1 | Flowering Aquarium Plants Part 2 | Liverworts in the Aquarium | Elements of Design
Planted Aquarium Maintenance | More Mosses | Invaders | Ferns in the Aquarium | Setting up a Planted Aquarium
Seaweeds of the Pacific Northwest | Proserpinaca | Hardware for the Planted Aquarium | Rotala | Neocaridina Shrimp | Lo-tech Tank Tips

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