How to Plant & Grow Lesser Water-Plantain (Baldellia ranunculoides)

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lesser water-plantain Baldellia ranunculoides in bloom
Lesser water-plantain has white to light pink flowers with fringed edges. Photo by Javier martin, CC BY-SA 3.0

The lesser water-plantain is in the Alismataceae family, which contains approximately 113 flowering plants that are aquatic, tropical, or both. Other common names for this particular species are crowfoot-alisma and the Siberian pink cup. Generally known to thrive in swamps, bogs, and muddy shorelines of bodies of freshwater such as lakes and ponds in lowland areas, its native range includes Western and Central Europe, the coast of North Africa, and a few countries in the Middle East like Turkey and Syria.

Lesser water-plantain has a curved stem and branched umbels which contain up to 4 light pink to white, 3-petaled flowers with bright yellow anthers during its blooming season. These flowers look almost as though they were torn slightly on the ends. The leaves are ribbon-shaped and delicate beneath the water and more blade-like above the water.

There are two distinct subspecies that have been identified, Baldellia ranunculoides ranunculoides and Baldellia ranunculoides repens. The subspecies can be distinguished most easily by the colors of the flowers. Baldellia r. ranunculoides has smaller white petals, while Baldellia r. repens has pink or lilac petals and larger flowers. Another main difference is the ability of B. r. ranunculoides can self-pollinate to reproduce; B. r. repens must rely on pollination by insects. However, these two subspecies can and do readily hybridize, making clear identification somewhat difficult.

Facts, Benefits & Uses of Lesser Water-Plantain

Seed head of the lesser water-plantain
B. ranunculoides has mace-shaped seed heads that closely mirror those of buttercups, but the resemblance ends there. Photo by Wim Rubers, Netherlands, CC BY 3.0

The Latin name “ranunculoides” means buttercup-like, and this plant is actually named because the seeds, which are mace-shaped nutlets, resemble the seeds produced by many members of the buttercup family, Ranunculaceae. An example of this can be found in another beloved pond and garden plant, marsh marigold (Caltha palustris).

When lesser water-plantain is not in bloom, it can be difficult to tell apart from other aquatic plants. Apparently, one way to identify it is to crush the leaves, which smell unmistakably like coriander!

Like many native flowering plants, its presence is beneficial for native pollinators, as it is a good source of food for insects such as bees and butterflies. B. ranunculoides is unfortunately declining in the wild due to habitat loss and competition from other species. As such, it is now classified as “near threatened” by the IUCN. Its decline is reflective of the general global trend of loss of healthy wetlands and poor water quality due to runoff and pollution. Focusing on its conservation could be beneficial to other wetland species, as lesser water-plantain can be used as indicator of ecosystem health due to its sensitivity to eutrophication, or changes in nutrient levels.

Recently, lesser water-plantain made the news as it was spotted growing in Somerset, England, where it had previously not been seen for over 100 years and was thought to be locally extinct. This particular site is notable in wetland conservation because it harbors multiple rare plant species. It is hypothesized that this location’s success with sensitive and rare species is due to its isolation from other waterways, resulting in water conditions that have improved over time rather than degrading.

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Lesser Water-Plantain Fact Sheet:
Herbaceous Aquatic Perennial
USDA 4 – 8
Full sun
White, light pink
May – August (Spring-Summer)
Height 20 cm (≈ 8 in.)
Up to 5 cm of still or slow water
pH 6.0 – 8.0

Lesser Water-Plantain Growth, Hardiness & Climate

how to grow lesser water plantain in a pond
Lesser water-plantain is very slow growing, and as such will not overtake your other pond plants. Photo by Christian Fischer, CC BY-SA 3.0

B. ranunculoides is slow-growing, and on average grows to a height of about 20 cm, or .2 meters, over its first few years of growth. It will also spread in clumps and can grow to approximately 30 cm in width.

After germination, lesser water-plantain will generally not flower until its second year of growth. It flowers in the summer months, blooming in June through August. The B. r. repens subspecies has a blooming period that occurs just a little later in the year, from about June to October.

Lesser water-plantain thrives when provided with lots of sunlight.  Although it can survive in a shaded area, growth will be reduced and flowering may not occur. It is most often found in bodies of water with still or slow-moving water, and does well in a range of soil types such as sand, loam, or clay. However, it really thrives in rich, calciferous, peaty soils.

How to Plant Lesser Water-Plantain In Ponds

lesser water plantain growing in water
Lesser water-plantain can be planted in 10 cm or less of still or slow-moving water. Photo by Christian Fischer, CC BY-SA 3.0

Lesser water-plantain is an easy addition to an aquatic garden and is popular for its attractive and dainty blooms in the warmer months.

Lesser water-plantain should be planted in shallow water along the edge of an aquatic habitat. It seems to grow best when planted in up to 5 cm of water, but can tolerate up to 10 cm of water so long as there isn’t much water movement. It’s known for its ability to root quite easily once it makes contact with mud, so planting on the margins of your pond should work just fine. A planting basket may be used to help with placement.

How to Care For Lesser Water-Plantain

how to care for lesser water plantain Baldellia ranunculoides
A hardy plant, B. ranunculoides requires very little care outside of ensuring it has access to standing water and full sunlight. Photo by Vengolis, CC BY-SA 4.0

Lesser water-plantain is generally a low maintenance plant after it has been planted. It can be outcompeted by larger plants, so it would do best in a small pond without other species that are prone to overcrowding, such as parrot’s feather or frogbit.

Additionally, lesser water-plantain is often found naturally in peat bogs and calcium-rich fens, and so would do best if planted in conditions that can closely mimic these conditions. If planting in aquatic pots, you can simply provide peaty, calcium-rich substrate directly in the pot if the rest of your plants do not prefer that type of environment. Alternatively, it’s a fairly hardy plant and is able to tolerate most soil types.

How to Winter Lesser Water-Plantain

As a perennial plant native to the cooler USDA hardiness zones of 4-8, B. ranunculoides will become dormant and growth will naturally die down in the winter, then reappear in the spring. You can help maintain your pond’s overall appearance and encourage new growth by trimming the tops back in late fall, but otherwise no special care is needed to help lesser water-plantain successfully overwinter – it’s quite adept at doing that on its own!

Is Lesser Water-Plantain Toxic, Poisonous or Invasive?

Lesser water-plantain has been introduced to a couple of locations in North America; eastern Newfoundland in Canada, as well as Washington state in the United States. However, it does not have a very invasive nature and is generally more easily threatened by other plant competitors, and as such is not considered invasive in these locations. Nonetheless, we encourage you to only obtain plants that are native to your particular area.

The leaves and roots of lesser water-plantain can be toxic to mammals if ingested in large quantities. It has not been well studied, but mammals may avoid it based on at least one site observation showing that B. ranunculoides appeared to be unaffected in an area that was otherwise well-grazed by livestock. The sap emitted when the plant is injured can also irritate the skin, so be aware of this when planting.

Is Lesser Water-Plantain Edible? Will Fish Eat it?

Since this plant grows along shallow water margins, it is unlikely that fish will encounter it. In the wild, pond snails have been observed grazing on the leaves. If you’re concerned about your fish getting to this plant, you can plant it on narrow shelves where your fish can’t get to it or utilize aquatic planting baskets, but this shouldn’t be necessary as fish are unlikely to show interest in it even if they are able to swim to it.

Where to Buy Lesser Water-Plantain & Seeds? (UK & US)

Lesser water plantain is generally sold in small pots, or as bare root plants for replanting. Within its native range, it can be found somewhat readily at many plant nurseries specializing in aquatic plants, or can be ordered in. Alternatively, a variety of online outlets offer it for sale, as well.

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