Best Plants to Put Around Water Features & Fountains 2021 [Updated]
The gentle patter of water, its graceful trajectory or flow, and the occasional spray or splash towards a lush green border: it’s a sensory image that sticks!
A fountain as your garden’s water feature opens up an avenue of creativity when it comes to plant selection. Lush grasses and the deep green fronds of ferns can soften hard textures and give your fountain a more earthy appearance. Similarly, bright flowers, symbolic of fertility and beauty, can bring a more mystical and dreamlike mood as they grace the water’s perimeter.
Though all plants technically need water to survive, not all can withstand conditions right next to a fountain. As water features evaporate under heat and occasionally spew out water, the best plant candidates are those that favor high humidity conditions and moist soil. These are plants that are naturally found along the borders of wild ponds and lakes or in moist environments that receive year-round rainfall. Aside from considering the preferences of potential ornamental plants, you will also need to consider their growth rates and size relative to your fountain.
Tall plants may mask the appearance of small fountains, whereas small, slow-growing species can go amiss next to a large multi-tiered feature. Keep in mind that rapidly growing shrubs, grasses, and vines may also need more maintenance so that they don’t drop too many leaves or shadow some of your fountain’s features. Consider the added benefits that flowering plants may bring as well. Would you like butterflies, birds, and bees visiting your water feature? If so, here are some fantastic species that will shape your fountain’s character and appreciate the occasional splash!
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9 Best Plants to Put Around Water Features
1) Cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis)
If you’ve always yearned to see hummingbirds in your garden, the cardinal flower is an absolute must. This striking perennial produces vivid red flowers that arise from tall stems. Each flower is shaped like a trumpet, perfect for the hummingbird’s specialized beak. Its blooms also attract butterflies from spring through fall. This plant, which can grow up to 4 feet (120 cm) tall, is just right for medium to large water features. Place it in a pot right next to your fountain if you’d like to accentuate a contrast between earthy and brilliant colors.
The cardinal flower is a moisture-lover and thrives under rainfall. It will certainly appreciate constant splashes and sprays, and can even survive in poorly drained soil and standing water! In the absence of a constant water source, it will need to be watered deeply and regularly. Apart from its heavy moisture demands, this species can withstand a wide variety of conditions. It is hardy to USDA zones 3 – 9 and can generally survive outdoors through winter.
If you’d like your cardinal flower to bloom repeatedly every year, don’t hesitate to clip its flower spikes. New ones may grow in place of the old ones! If that weren’t enough of a selling point, you can also easily propagate this species to populate your fountain area. Simply plant bud cuttings towards the end of summer, and outplant seedlings during the next growth period. Do bear in mind, however, that ingestion of this plant may cause discomfort, particularly to pets that may regularly roam your area.
2) Ragwort plant (Ligularia spp.)
If the area around your fountain is cast in shade, you really ought to consider growing multiple varieties of Ligularia. This genus has several species of ornamental perennials that produce bright flowers and exotic-looking foliage. These can look quite dramatic next to a fountain and may even grow tall enough to steal the show! Arising from stems that reach 3 – 4 feet tall are large, deep green to purple leaves. These are often heart-shaped and have markedly serrated edges.
If the soil is kept rich in nutrients and moisture, you can expect this showy plant to produce towering spires of yellow flowers. Some cultivars have spires that look like bottlebrushes (L. stenocephala ‘The Rocket’), while others have larger blooms that are reminiscent of daisies (L. dentata ‘Osiris Fantaisie’). No matter the flower type, one thing’s for sure – Ligularia absolutely love moisture!
Place this plant next to medium-large fountains that can regularly spray its foliage with water. Keep in mind that it will need to be kept in shade, as too much sun can cause the soil to dry out and may prevent the leaves from expanding fully. Apart from rich soil and regular provision of moisture, these plants will generally tolerate ambient conditions of USDA zones 3 – 8.
3) Water forget-me-not (Myosotis scorpioides)
If your fountain is quite small and simple, this plant would be the perfect accent piece. With the most delicate flowers to match, the water forget-me-not is a low-growing perennial that typically reaches a height of 6 – 10 inches. From spring to summer, this plant produces adorable flowers that open to a diameter of just a fourth of an inch. Its 5-lobed petals are as blue as a summer sky and seem to arise from a patch of yellow fornices at the flower’s center.
Also known as “true” forget-me-not, Myosotis scorpioides has semi-evergreen foliage and woody stems. It can adapt to a variety of light conditions, but will favor partial shade if you are located in a region with dry climates. Withstanding temperatures that range from -10˚C to 25˚C (14˚ – 77˚F), this hardy species is quite a rapid grower, provided its soil is kept rich and moist. To ensure that they don’t overgrow your garden, cultivate your forget-me-nots in pots around your fountain.
Small, yet formidable, this plant is listed as a noxious weed in several Midwestern states (e.g. Michigan, Wisconsin) and should be reared with caution around this region. Keep in mind that it is capable of self-seeding, especially in wet areas.
4) Canna lily (Canna spp.)
Canna lilies can add a theatrical flair to your fountain area. With flowers that look like vibrant skirts of breathtakingly vivid colors, this tropical plant would be a fantastic addition next to a large pool or multi-tiered fountain. Its shoots can grow to 6 feet tall and boast captivating foliage. Depending on the variety, canna leaves can be deep green in color, with bold white stripes, or can possess a gradient of green and purple hues, with red stripes. There are so many cultivars to choose from!
Magnificent canna flowers come into bloom from late spring to fall. They can withstand conditions that many other flowers can’t tolerate. They will perhaps out-bloom many of your flowering plants and are thus a great addition to your garden if you’d like an extended period of color interest. To ensure that your canna lilies bloom, they must be planted in fertile, moist soil and placed in an area that receives full sun or partial shade.
For foliage color to develop properly, cannas should be exposed to temperatures of at least 15˚C (59˚F). Remember that these are tropical plants that thrive best in warm, humid climates. Hardy to USDA zones 7 – 10, cannas may require special overwintering methods. They must be cut down to the ground once the first frosts take place. Afterward, their rhizomes must be dug out and stored in temperatures that don’t drop to below 4˚C (40˚F).
5) Garden nasturtium (Tropaeolum majus)
Now naturalized in many parts of the world, this rapidly-growing annual is remarkably easy to cultivate as a ground cover or border plant. Its trailing stems can be elevated to achieve a cascade of charming circular leaves around a water fountain. If your fountain is located in front of a wall, you can mount pots of garden nasturtium to create a vine backdrop of intensely colored flowers lasting from July to September.
Depending on the cultivar, nasturtium blooms range in color from salmon pink to blood orange. Its funnel-shaped flowers attract an assortment of butterflies and moths, some of which produce larvae that feed on the plant’s foliage. At dusk, the flowers can sometimes look as though they are “flashing”. This phenomenon, which is simply an optical reaction to the contrast between bright orange and green, has been named the Elizabeth Linnaeus Phenomenon (after Carl Linnaeus’ daughter).
Garden nasturtium thrives best in moist soil and under full sun. Contrary to common knowledge, it flowers more profusely when grown on poor soil. Rich, fertile soil may cause the plant to yield more leaves instead of flowers! Seeds of this plant should be sown outdoors in spring, once the final frosts have passed. Do make sure to restrict its spread, however, as its stems reach a length of 6 feet and can become invasive in warm climates.
6) Elephant ears (Alocasia, Colocasia, and Xanthosoma spp.)
As their common name suggests, this group of plants is known for having massive features that are certain to stand out just about anywhere. The largest of them can produce fleshy leaves that grow to 5 feet tall and 4 feet wide! As you might imagine, this would just about dwarf a small-sized fountain. You should thus only consider elephant ears if you have a large water feature that may benefit from the shade of giant leaves.
Elephant ears are swamp plants that thrive best in warm areas. If located outside of USDA zones 8 – 11, you will have to treat these as annuals or move them into a temperature-regulated greenhouse for the cold months. Their leaves can tolerate direct sun, but will not fair well in intense conditions. Indirect sunlight, coupled with high humidity and rich, moist soil are perfect for ensuring elephant ear survival.
Flowers of Alocasia, Colocasia, and Xanthosoma cultivars are generally not as eye-catching as the large leaves. They are tiny, often yellow to white in color, and arise from a spadix. The spadix is usually protected by a spathe which is often more eye-catching than the flowers themselves. Cultivars that you may want to consider for their impressive leaves include Colocasia esculenta ‘Blue Hawaii’, Alocasia ‘Hilo Beauty’, and Xanthosoma ‘Lime Ginger’.
7) Swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata)
If you’d like to lure some spectacular monarch butterflies to your garden, you would do wise to place a few pots of swamp milkweed next to a water feature. This flowering perennial produces lovely pink umbels at the tips of shoots that can reach a height of 5 feet (152 cm). Its fragrant blooms each have five nectar cups that crown over tiny petals. Each of these cups is equipped with a curved horn-like structure that makes visiting insects come into contact with pollen. When pollinated, the milkweed develops seeds that are encased in elegant-looking pods.
Hardy to USDA zones 3 – 6, Asclepias incarnata is native to wet meadows, swamps, and marshes. This water-loving plant will thrive under the constant spray of a sunlit fountain, as it requires consistent moisture to bloom in the summer. Unlike other milkweeds, it is not an aggressive grower and can thus be planted directly into the ground. It is not associated with any serious diseases or pest problems.
If you’re interested in helping secure populations of monarch butterflies, do try to get your hands on this plant. You may one day find butterfly eggs and caterpillars happily munching on its leaves!
8) Virginia spiderwort (Tradescantia virginiana)
A wildflower plant that’s remarkably easy to cultivate, the Virginia spiderwort is a lovely plant for the partially shaded areas of your garden. This herbaceous perennial will happily thrive next to a small fountain, as it has a preference for moist soil and grows to just 1 – 3 feet tall (30 – 91 cm). Its conspicuous flowers are three-petaled, usually blue to purple in color (though there are also rare cultivars with pink or white flowers), and bloom for up to six weeks in summer.
Known for attracting butterflies and for being of special value to bumblebees, this species is a must-have if you’d like to diversify your local community of pollinators. When pollinated, the flowers form into fuzzy, bead-like, green pods that may look quite menacing because of their dark stems. This is not the image behind this plant’s common name, however.
Some say that the spiderwort is named so for its stem secretions, which are threadlike or silky when the stem is cut. Others say that it’s named for its flowers’ spider-like appearance or for its medicinal use as a herbal treatment for spider bites. Whatever the real reason, spiderwort is a great plant to have as it is generally low-maintenance and can tolerate a wide variety of conditions. Hardy to USDA zones 4 – 9, this is a forgiving species that will make even the beginner gardener proud.
9) Purple moor grass (Molinia caerulea)
Commonly found in bogs and moorlands, purple moor grass produces gracefully arching leaves that can effectively enliven the areas around both small and large fountains. If your space is in need of texture, or if you’re after a Mediterranean or rustic appearance, the blue-green blades of this species are perfect! This grass slowly grows to a height and spread of 3 feet and can naturalize fairly easily.
Purple moor grass produces impressive purplish plumes that jut out through the mound of foliage, as though an architecturally designed display of fireworks. For maximum effect, grow multiple individuals next to each other, perhaps as a backdrop to accentuate a fountain’s liveliness.
Hardy to USDA zones 4 – 9, purple moor grass favors moist, well-draining soil and full sun exposure. Fairly easy to cultivate and maintain, several of this species’ cultivars are recipients of the Royal Horticultural Society’s Award of Garden Merit. If you’re interested in adding unique grasses around your water feature, these cultivars are definitely worth checking out: M. caerulea ‘Variegata’, ‘Skyracer’, ‘Poul Petersen’, and ‘Moorhexe’.