Best Plants for Waterfalls, Pondless Waterfalls & Around Waterfalls 2021
Having a tiered pond with waterfalls makes for a fantastic visual and audible treat. Not only that, but the waterfalls help keep water moving, thus preventing stagnation, discouraging excessive algae growth, and naturally incorporating more oxygen into the water. There are even water filters you can get that are incorporated into waterfall features (see our detailed review of the top waterfall filters here).
Figuring out which plants can tolerate the level changes and water movement typical of even small pond waterfalls can be a challenge, though. There is always the option to not have plants, of course, but in most circumstances we strongly encourage adding at least a couple different species of plants to provide oxygen, filtration, and habitat for macroinvertebrates, your fish, and any potential wildlife like newts.
Below, we’ll cover plants that can drape over rocks and waterfalls, plants that can grow comfortably along the edge of the waterfall or pond, and a couple of vegetation choices if you’re looking for a more unique, mystical appearance.
Considerations When Choosing Waterfall Plants
As always, check to make sure that any plant you are interested in is not invasive in your area and is legal to have! Invasive plant introduction to new areas by humans is one of the leading contributors to the loss of native biodiversity, wildlife habitat degradation, and damage to our vital natural resources.
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Best Cascading Waterfall Plants
1. Creeping Jenny (Lysimachia nummularia)
A favorite among many garden pond owners, creeping jenny is quite a charming little plant. It grows to approximately one to three inches in height, and drapes beautifully over logs, rocks, and gentler waterfalls to float atop the water’s surface in a vibrant splash of bright green. In early summer, it produces small yellow flowers that draw in bees and butterflies. As an added bonus, L. nummularia aids in erosion control.
Not a particularly picky plant, creeping jenny grows well in USDA hardiness zones 2 through 10 and will remain evergreen (turning more of a golden yellow color) in zones 7 and above. Below this, and it will die down in the autumn but should return the following spring.
To plant, you can simply place creeping jenny in a bit of well-draining substrate between some rocks at the top or side of your waterfall(s), or anywhere else that it can spread and drape. It does well in both full sun and partial shade. It’s a fast grower, so will need to be trimmed back as needed to prevent overgrowth.
This plant is native to much of Europe but considered non-native in North America.
2. Shyleaf (Aeschynomene americana)
Shyleaf, also known as American jointvetch or thornless mimosa, belongs to the pea family and as such tends to trail along the ground. It does well in damp locations, and has no problem with sprawling over rocks to trail along the water’s edge.
Hardiness zones 8 to 11 suit this subtropical plant best; if you live in a region with proper winters, you can grow shyleaf during the spring and summer but it will die come winter (this may be a perk, as it’s invasive in the northern US, Canada, and the UK).
Pretty little pea blossoms flower as early as January if conditions are mild, providing pops of color including white, yellow, pink, red, and purple for approximately two months until seeding occurs. You can trim flower heads to encourage more flowering and delay seeding.
Each plant can spread up to six feet and does produce quite a few seeds, so harvesting the pods and trimming back yearly is a good idea to help control growth. It can be planted either in dirt along the waterfall’s edge or in substrate amongst some rocks to drape over the water.
Shyleaf looks and behaves much like Botswana wonder, but is native to the southern US and South America. Botswana wonder also works wonderfully for waterfall gardens, but is quite invasive outside of its native range of southern Africa and thus should be avoided! Aeschynomene indica (Indian jointvetch) is also quite similar, and native to much of Asia if you live in this region and are seeking a plant like Botswana wonder or shyleaf.
Another favorite of ours, lemon bacopa is an easygoing little plant that smells wonderfully – but not overpoweringly – of lemons when its leaves are disturbed. Just gently brushing against them as you walk by is often enough to release the scent. It is often confused with & erroneously sold as water hyssop (Bacopa monnieri), but lemon bacopa can be distinguished by its five-petaled blue flowers and characteristic lemony scented leaves.
Hardiness zones 6 through 11 and partial to full sun will ensure that this perennial grows to its full four inch height and up to two foot spread. It’s incredibly easy to grow, and finding a location isn’t hard – it can grow submerged in up to 6 inches of water, where it’ll grow straight up and then spread atop the water’s surface, or on emergent edges where it will creep and cascade wherever you want it to.
It’s found naturally in disturbance-rich areas that experience heavy flooding and hurricanes, like the Florida Everglades. Growing in these sorts of areas has yielded a very strong little plant, with thick stems that make it quite easy to train and redirect without damaging!
Flowering occurs from summer through fall, or year-round in subtropical locations, producing blue flowers that very nicely contrast the bright green leaves and stems. This hydrophyte is absolutely exceptional at purifying water by soaking up excess phosphorous, nitrogen, and even heavy metals. In fact, it’s often used by ecologists in wetland remediation projects!
This aromatic plant is native to the southern and southeastern United States, parts of Europe, and South Korea.
A member of the mustard family, Brassicaceae (formerly Cruciferae), watercress is well known for its ability to filter soil and water. In fact, N. officinale is so well-adapted that it can adjust how many nutrients it takes up depending on what’s there – if there’s an influx of phosphorous or nitrogen from fertilizer runoff, watercress is able to ramp up its nutrient intake (to a certain degree).
Bees, butterflies, moths, and some pollinating fly species such as bee flies all rely on this plant’s small pollen-rich white flowers. Though able to grow in damp soil, watercress really prefers to grow directly in moving water, making it ideal for waterfall ponds. Simply place it amongst some rocks or substrate to help hold its roots in place, and over time it will extend over the water.
Watercress is a perennial, able to come back year after year in hardiness zones 3 through 11. It grows just as well in an inch of water as it does in several feet of water, so long as its roots have some substrate to dig into.
Native to Europe, India, western Asia, and northern Africa, Nasturtium officinale has since been introduced to North America and Australia, where it is largely considered a noxious weed and, in some areas, is highly invasive and capable of overtaking natural ecosystems.
Another favorite among pond hobbyists due to its unique appearance and characteristic strong minty scent when disturbed. Like most of the other species on this list, water mint is excellent at filtering excess nutrients out of water while also serving as a valuable source of nectar for a wide multitude of pollinating insects and birds.
Hardiness zones 3 through 10 suit aquatic mint best, as does being planted in two to four inches of either damp earth or water. They’re often found in nature within their native range growing along lakes and deeper water bodies, and in shallow rivers and bogs. Some may prefer to grow more or less upward, but can easily be trained to drape and trail over water and rocks as desired.
Native to the UK and other parts of Europe, northern Africa, and western Asia, aquatic mint has been introduced to North and South America, where it’s primarily considered a noxious weed due to its ability to spread via rhizomes.
Best Marginal Plants for Around Waterfalls
One of our personal favorites, cardinal flower is an absolutely striking marginal flower that grows well along pond edges. It won’t grow well in water that moves too quickly, such as on or near a waterfall, but it makes a gorgeous accent along the edge in still water or saturated soil.
The vibrant scarlet flowers, tubular flower shape, and sweet nectar make cardinal flower a favorite of hummingbirds. It’s also readily visited and pollinated by butterflies and moths (such as the hawk moth) with longer proboscises that are able to access to the nectar.
Native to much of the US and Canada, this emergent perennial is not shy of the cold and does very well in hardiness zones 2 through 9. They should be planted in one to two inches of water or damp soil, but again not directly on a waterfall. Though native to the Americas, it was introduced to Europe in the 1600s and isn’t considered invasive as it doesn’t overtake areas.
2. Blue Flag Water Iris (Iris virginica)
Another great visual accent plant, blue flag iris has striking blue-purple petals, sometimes with a yellow stripe in the middle of some petals that serves to help draw in pollinators. It’s typically found in damp soils along water banks, but can also grow in up to six inches of water. This means you can plant it either on the banks of your pond or in slightly moving water above or below your waterfall(s).
Native to the eastern and southern United States, blue flag iris does best in hardiness zones 5 through 9. It’s a low-maintenance plant – give it ample moisture and sunlight, and it will grow up to two feet tall and help with stabilizing your pond bank. Its large flowers do not have a scent, making this species ideal for those who have sensitive allergies.
This particular species is invasive outside of North America – if you live in Europe or Asia and are seeking a similar species, check out yellow flag iris (Iris pseudacorus).
3. Jewelweed (Impatiens capensis)
Known as jewelweed or spotted touch-me-not, Impatiens capensis is a well-loved emergent plant with fleshy stems and pendant-like bright orange-red flowers. These flowers are readily visiting by bees as well as small butterflies and moths, and the occasional hummingbird.
Its succulent stems contain compounds that help neutralize itching from insect bites, hives, and poison ivy. We can’t speak to its effectiveness against the latter two, but from experience spreading the juice from jewelweed’s stems does help relieve the painful itching brought about by brushing against wood nettle. In fact, if you find jewelweed in the wild, you’re likely to find some poison ivy or nettle not too far away (and vice versa).
It grows best in damp soils next to still or slow-moving water, and so would make an excellent addition along the edge of your pond as an accent. It can grow quickly, but is easy to trim or dig up if needed.
Though native to the US and Canada, jewelweed can also be found throughout the UK and other parts of Europe, where it is currently considered naturalized and not invasive. However, we always encourage you to utilize only species that are native to your area!
That’s also why we chose to cover jewelweed rather than busy lizzie, a similar impatiens species that is one of the most popular garden plants worldwide. Busy lizzie, though, is only native to eastern Africa and southeastern Asia. It’s considered one of the most invasive species in the world – please avoid this plant unless you live within its native range!
4. Marsh Orchids (Dactylorhiza spp.)
Among the easiest orchids in the world to grow (though still not necessarily “easy” – they are orchids, after all!), marsh orchids can add bright pops of color all along your tiered pond to further accent its different levels and flowing water. Their flower spikes each contain dozens of attention-grabbing purple and pink spotted flowers that also serve to draw in a variety of pollinators.
All Dactylorhiza species require ready access to moisture, and as such will do best planted marginally along your pond (but not directly in water). If they experience excessive heat or drought, their tubers will begin to dry up to help conserve resources. Keep their soil consistently moist to encourage healthy growth and flowering throughout the growing season.
With over 75 species, marsh orchids can be found across the US, Canada, the UK, and Eurasia. This makes it quite easy to find a variety that is native to your particular region – just make certain to not pluck any from nature! Marsh orchids, like many other orchids, are quite rare in nature and it is illegal to disturb or harvest them! Many nurseries legally sell hybrids that are easier to grow than their wild counterparts.
Unique Waterfall Plants & Vegetation
Whether you’ve got a waterfall in your pond or not, moss always makes a great addition to add a softer touch of green year-round! Some of the easiest types to grow and maintain yourself are fairy moss, hair cap moss, and water moss.
Fairy moss (Azolla filiculoides) is technically a water fern (not a true moss), and thrives in milder waters. It can be placed on rocks, logs, or substrate where it will slowly expand and is able to float on the water. It can be placed vertically, as well, to add some green directly to your waterfall. In the winter, fairy moss can freeze over and will simply unthaw once temperatures warm back up. Invasive in the UK!
Hair cap moss (Polytrichum commune) is a sprawling moss species that grows very well in humid areas with high rainfall. This makes it a great species to add to waterfall ponds, as it tolerates disturbance from moving water quite well. It’s one of the tallest moss species, growing nearly two feet tall at times, but can be easily trained to only a couple inches of height while encouraging new growth to creep horizontally.
Water mosses, also known as brook mosses and fountain mosses, are a broad variety of mosses contained within the genus Fontinalis. They can be found virtually worldwide, making it easy to find a variety that’s native to your region, and thrive in moving waters – making them perfect for multilevel ponds with waterfalls! They typically grow submerged rather than on the surfaces of rocks or wood, and so would add a multi-dimensional layer to your waterfall vegetation.
Another way to add some unique flare to your pond is with ferns. Cinnamon ferns and maidenhair ferns look different from one another and thrive in wet conditions.
Cinnamon fern (Osmundastrum cinnamomeum) is native to much of North America, and is readily found in the rich, moist soils along streams, rivers, and bogs. It’s hardy to zones 3 through 10 and will return year to year so long as it has enough shade, moisture, and semi-acidic soil. They can be grown in a couple inches of water if desired, but do best in moist soils. Another moisture-loving fern native to North America is the sensitive fern (Onoclea sensibilis).
Maidenhair ferns come in multiple different species. The northern maidenhair fern (Adiantum pedantum) is native to North America, typically in zones 4 to 8. Southern maidenhair fern (Adiantum capillus-veneris) has a broader range; it’s native to the southern US, South America, Eurasia, and Australasia. These both do well in moderately acidic, damp areas, either in damp soil, in water, or growing directly from cracks in rocks and walls.