How to Plant & Grow Asian Lizard’s Tail (Saururus chinensis)

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Asian lizard's tail facts and benefits to ponds
石川 Shihchuan from 台北市 (Taipei City), 台灣 (Taiwan) / CC BY-SA

Asian lizard’s tail, not to be confused with Chinese lizard’s tail (also known as chameleon plant), is native to the Koreas, Japan, China, India, and the Philippines. Though it’s become a popular garden and pond plant around much of the world, it’s important to note that it’s considered invasive outside of Asia.

Traditionally, the flowers and roots of Asian lizard’s tail have been used to treat malaria, poison ingestion, and parasites. The leaves were, and in some portions of Asia still are, used to make poultices for boils and abscesses. The entire plant could be mashed with a mortar and pestle and used externally to treat rashes, fungal infections, and arthritis, or consumed to help alleviate urinary tract infections.

Facts, Benefits & Uses of Asian Lizard’s Tail

Bees benefit from asian lizard's tail
Ecologically critical pollinators, like the honey bee, benefit from Asian lizard’s tail.

The roots and stems of S. chinensis contain aerenchyma, which are specialized structures that enable gas exchange from stems and leaves to roots, as well as the ability to hold water during times of drought. These aerenchyma make it incredibly hardy, able to withstand times of drought, hypoxia, and nutrient deficiencies.

Its name is Greek, from sauros meaning “lizard” and oura meaning “tail,” so named for its white spike flower that somewhat resembles a lizard’s tail. These flowers provide a valuable and highly sought after nectar source for honey bees and smaller butterflies.

This plant also has the incredible ability to modify its leaves to draw in more pollinators, turning the top few leaves closest to its flowers white to make them look like large, white flowers. Studies have found that they are able to attract twice as many pollinators (and thus reproduce faster) by using this unique and crafty strategy.

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Asian Lizard's Tail Fact Sheet:
Herbaceous Semi-Aquatic Perennial
USDA 6 – 9
Full sun to partial shade
June – August (Summer)
Height up to 91 cm (36 in)
Soil or water up to 15 cm (6 in) deep
pH 6.5 – 8.5

Asian Lizard’s Tail Growth, Hardiness & Climate

Saururus chinensis lizard's tail growth and hardiness
Sen Itto / CC BY-SA 2.0

Asian lizard’s tail is able to grow pretty quickly, reaching full height (one to three feet) and spreading up to three feet to produce new plants in only a couple of months. They do best in damp, temperate climates, but are able to tolerate cooler temperatures just fine. USDA zones 4 through 9 suit this plant just fine, so long as ample moisture and at least partial sun are readily available.

How to Plant Asian Lizard’s Tail In Ponds

How to grow Asian lizard's tail in ponds
K M / CC BY-SA 2.0

To prevent it from spreading out of control, Asian lizard’s tail should be planted in pots or aquatic planting baskets. These can be placed in several inches of water, enough to cover the plant up to its crown (where its roots meet its stem), but can go a little beyond this point so long as the leaves are still well above the water. Alternatively, S. chinensis can be planted in soil that is kept consistently damp. They work best as marginal plants, as in the wild they are found in or near shallow water banks, typically no deeper than 6 inches.

Moist, rich soils work best, such as loam or sandy loam, so long as the soil is able to simultaneously hold moisture but provides enough space between each granule to allow the plant to breathe and expand without rotting. Gravel is not required, but can be placed around the plant if you suspect that your fish may try to dig them up and/or eat them.

How to Care For Asian Lizard’s Tail

How to care for Asian lizard's tail in ponds
peganum from Henfield, England / CC BY-SA

Asian lizard’s tail is remarkably easy to care for. Really all it needs is sunlight and ample moisture, and it’s happy! If you’d like, you can provide fertilizer to encourage flower production, but keep in mind that any fertilizers used may wind up in your pond and could negatively impact water quality. Potential side effects could include eutrophication, hypoxia, the establishment of bacteria and parasites, and fish illness or death. However, occasional and monitored fertilizer use should be alright, so long as your pond is well filtered and well aerated.

If S. chinensis begins to spread too much for your liking, you can trim plants back or dig them up entirely. Make sure to properly dispose of them in the garbage (do not simply toss them aside or compost them) so that they don’t establish themselves in natural areas where they’ll surely become an invasive issue. As always, clean any dead or dropped foliage from your pond to help ensure healthy water quality.

How to Winter Asian Lizard’s Tail

Asian lizard’s tail is cold tolerant, and able to go dormant for the winter by storing energy in their rhizomatous roots. Some S. chinensis plants have been observed creating new leaves even after frost has hit.

If not planted directly in water, you can further protect these plants in the winter by placing an inch or two of mulch around them to hold in heat. If you’ve planted your Asian lizard’s tail in pots, it would be an easy matter to simply transfer them to a sunny area indoors. This could result in the plant blooming even in the winter.

Is Asian Lizard’s Tail Toxic, Poisonous or Invasive?

As Asian lizard’s tail is native to, well, Asia, in short it is indeed invasive outside of this region. There is little literature regarding whether it’s illegal to own in the U.S. or the U.K. However, if you live in either of these regions, you are advised to purchase Saururus cernuus, instead. S. cernuus, known also as lizard’s tail or water dragon, is a very similar species that is native to the U.S. and, as yet, not considered invasive in the U.K. This is likely because water dragon is somewhat less voracious in its spreading habits than Asian lizard’s tail, though planting in pots is still recommended to help control the roots.

While livestock, turtles, and fish have been known to munch on this plant in passing, it should be noted that it’s toxic if consumed in large quantities. A bit is fine, but do try to keep your fish and pets from eating it.

Is Asian Lizard’s Tail Edible? Will Fish Eat it?

Asian lizard’s tail is edible, but as mentioned above is toxic in large quantities. Fish are unlikely to eat it, seeming to prefer using its stems and leaves for shelter and shade more than anything else. However, if they do eat some, don’t fret. A nibble here or there shouldn’t harm them, but do your best to keep any dropped or trimmed leaves out of the pond regardless.

Where to Buy Asian Lizard’s Tail & Seeds? (UK & US)

Asian lizard’s tail is most easily purchased via online outlets. It does not seem to be readily stocked in nurseries or aquarium retail stores, but it’s possible that you could inquire about it and have the plant ordered in. Otherwise, there are a variety of online sources that sell it.

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