Best Plants for Mini, Small & Large Wildlife Ponds 2023 [Updated]
Plants are one of the most vital elements of a wildlife pond. Without them, a pond can fail to look natural and inviting to the forms of wildlife that you wish to attract. The most effective wildlife ponds are those that provide ample food and shelter to a diversity of visiting animals. They have both organic and inorganic features that open a wealth of ecological niches, just waiting to be occupied.
Unlike some species chosen for ornamental ponds, the best plant candidates for wildlife ponds are those that offer more functional rather than decorative purposes. These are associated with a wealth of natural benefits: the provision of cover and shelter for larvae, food for all kinds of animals, the capacity to aid in maintaining the clarity and cleanliness of water, the ability to mask pond construction or building supplies (such as liner or cement), and effectiveness in attracting pollinators.
To naturalize all dimensions of a wildlife pond, different types of plants must be used. Submerged aquatic plants that double as oxygenators are necessary to create pond bottom structure. Floating plants provide vital shade, protection, and water temperature regulation. Emergent or marginal plants allow animals to easily navigate along the interface between water and land. Even border plants are required to camouflage the stealthiest of visitors.
Not just any plant that meets these criteria is a good candidate, however. The best plants are those that are native to your area. Moreover, your selection must be based on the environmental conditions around your pond, as not all plants will take to varying levels of light and moisture. Below is a selection of species that, when grown together, would promote a balanced wildlife pond ecosystem.
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12 Best Plants for Wildlife Ponds
1) Rigid hornwort (Ceratophyllum demersum)
Also known as coon’s tail or rigid hornwort, Ceratophyllum demersum is a submerged aquatic plant. It can maintain either a free-floating or rooted habit. In the wild, colonies of this species grow profusely in ponds, lakes, and streams with mild temperatures and rich nutrient concentrations. The shoots of this species can grow to a length of up to 3 meters (10 feet) in clear water. Its leaves arise in fairly dense whorls, with stiff thread-like segments.
This species can be planted directly onto the bottom sediment of a wildlife pond. Colonies can also be grown out of gallon pots to restrict their spread. Rigid hornwort can provide multiple benefits to the deeper areas of your wildlife pond. This oxygenating plant produces biochemical compounds that can stifle the growth of algae. Its herbaceous structures can also serve as a protective habitat for juvenile fish, larvae, and tadpoles.
2) Curled pondweed (Potamogeton crispus)
Curled pondweed can be grown along the marginal sections or the deeper areas of your pond. It is an aquatic perennial that produces long branching stems. Arising from these stems are submerged, bright green leaves with noticeably curly edges. When summer conditions are optimal, floral spikes jut through the water’s surface and develop into fruits.
This species thrives best in slow-moving or standing water in lakes, ponds, and ditches. It is quite hardy and can withstand a wide variety of conditions, including those in polluted waterways and anthropogenically disturbed areas. If you intend to grow a small population in your wildlife pond, make sure that its spread is restricted to pots or baskets. Though fully manageable as a garden plant, it may become invasive in public water systems.
In a wildlife pond, the soft leaves of curled pondweed can serve as food and shelter to many visiting herbivores. Its gently undulating shoots may significantly increase the surface area in the pond’s water column. Both amphibians and fish are likely to release their eggs in pondweed colonies.
3) Water violet (Hottonia palustris)
Hottonia palustris is commonly known as water violet or featherfoil. Contrary to its common name, it belongs to the Primulaceae family of primroses and isn’t remotely related to violets. Apart from its flower stems, all of this plant’s vegetative parts maintain a fully submerged habit. The majority of its roots stay buried in bottom sediment, though a few may become suspended in the water column. The leaves of this species resemble a double-sided comb and have an alternative or whorl-like orientation relative to the stem.
In late spring or early summer, tender stems of white or lilac blossoms emerge through the water’s surface and are known for attracting dragonflies. To encourage flowering, place this perennial plant in a moderately deep section of a wildlife pond as its oxygenating shoots can reach a length of 1 meter (3 feet). Water violets are sensitive to pollutants and should be grown alongside other aquatic species that serve as natural filters.
4) White water lily (Nymphaea alba)
The European white water lily is a showy floating plant that can add to the enchantment of your wildlife pond, especially in the summer. Its mildly fragrant blossoms boast up to 28 white petals that expand over time. At the peak of a flower’s lifespan, it can reach a width of 8 inches (20 cm)! At the center of the delicate petals sits a golden-colored stamen, which is often irresistible to many pollinators. To encourage flowering, your white water lily must be situated in a bright section of your wildlife pond.
This species thrives best in slowly-moving water, with a depth of up to 2 meters (6.5 feet). It can withstand cool temperatures that drop to -20˚C (-4˚F). The lily pads and submerged parts of this hardy plant provide cover for many species and can be resting places for amphibians and their young. The sufficient shade provided by the floating leaves can greatly reduce the chances of cyanobacterial or algal blooms and can help maintain pond temperatures over the summer.
5) Common water crowfoot (Ranunculus aquatilis)
Depending on surrounding conditions, common water crowfoot may have strictly submerged vegetation or have floating leaves. This aquatic herb can be quite tricky to identify in the wild, but its structural plasticity makes it an exciting addition to your wildlife pond! You may be lucky enough to acquire a variety that produces both submerged and floating leaves. Faster-flowing water will generally induce the development of submerged leaves, which retain a thread-like structure.
In contrast, floating leaves tend to develop in standing or slow-moving water. These have a wider surface area and a toothed edge. Both leaf forms can be highly beneficial in a wildlife pond as this plant is known for its oxygenating qualities. Like its cousins in the Buttercup family (Ranunculaceae), this species can help prevent a toxic build-up of nutrients by actively absorbing nitrates. Its delicate sprays of white flowers can also attract many insects, which may choose to lay their protein-rich eggs in your wildlife pond.
6) Frogbit (Hydrocharis morsus-ranae)
If some sections of your wildlife pond are densely shaded, you should consider growing European frogbit. This aquatic plant has earned its amusing common name from an equally amusing misunderstanding. What was once thought of as frogs feeding on the floating leaves of this plant may actually be caterpillars, which are hosted by this species. The nutritious frogbit leaves are heart-shaped and arise from fibrous root systems in a rosette orientation.
As frogbit spreads via underground runners, it has the potential to be an invasive plant outside of its native range. Frogbit colonies can spread very quickly in calm water with rich nutrient profiles. Ideally, those in wildlife ponds should be grown out of pots or baskets. When its growth is managed, this species can aid in increasing your local biodiversity. Its edible mats provide shade, food, and protection to fish, insects, waterfowl, and even small mammals.
7) Floating sweet-grass (Glyceria fluitans)
Floating sweet-grass is a great candidate plant if you’re looking to naturalize your pond’s edges with coarse textures. The narrow, light green leaves of this plant appear to energetically jut through the water’s surface. These grow out of stems that extend up to a meter in length and terminate in a flowerhead of tiny spikelets. When situated in shallow or still water, the leaves can often form floating rafts. These rafts may serve as a safe passage for small animals to enter and exit the water.
In the wild, floating sweet-grass is often seen along mudflats, riverbanks, and the shores of ponds and lakes experiencing temperate climate conditions. This species can quickly colonize these areas and become a dominant weed. If you intend to cultivate populations around your wildlife pond, make sure that this plant is native to your area. Its seeds, which are considered a highly edible source of starch, are easily dispersed by waterfowl and other grazers.
8) Yellow flag iris (Iris pseudacorus)
For some vibrant splashes of summer color along your pond’s margins, you may consider planting bunches of yellow flag iris. This tall perennial can grow to a height of 4 feet (122 cm) and can significantly contribute to the vertical dimension of your wildlife pond. Its towering shoots and broad green leaves may serve as an idyllic perch to many native birds. Moreover, a dense cluster of shoots can provide protection and cover to many shy pond visitors.
Hardy to USDA zones 5 – 9, yellow flag iris thrives best in wet soils and under full sun exposure. It is normally found in wetland areas with mildly acidic marshes, streams, and ponds. When conditions are optimal, it produces intensely yellow flowers that appear to glow under the sun. Unfortunately, this species has the tendency to grow invasive as it can self-seed and spread via rhizomes. If located in the Midwest or in any other areas where this plant is considered a noxious weed, look into other Iris species that are non-invasive.
9) Water forget-me-not (Myosotis scorpioides)
Water forget-me-not is a widely loved species that would happily thrive in the margins of a wildlife pond. Any seasoned gardener or plant enthusiast would recognize its characteristic sky-blue flowers, which come into bloom throughout the summer. Its flowers arise on cymes that have been likened to a scorpion’s tail (thus the species epithet ‘scorpioides’). These attract many beneficial pollinators, such as bees, birds, butterflies, and moths.
Growing to a maximum height of 2 feet, water forget-me-not can spread at a rapid rate and can thrive in a wide variety of conditions. It is not necessarily known for being invasive, though you may opt to grow your plant out of a pot or water basket to restrict its spread. This species is hardy to USDA zones 5 – 9, and will flower under partial or full sun conditions provided the substrate is rich in organic matter. The delicate shoots, which grow quite close together, can provide shelter for juvenile fish and amphibian larvae.
10) Cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis)
Cardinal flower is a popular perennial that will thrive on the moist borders of a wildlife pond. This species is known for its vivid red flowers, which come into bloom in mid to late summer. Though this may be a more common choice for ornamental instead of wildlife ponds, you can definitely take more liberties when it comes to border plants. Cultivate this eye-catching species to draw hummingbirds and butterflies close to your pond!
In the wild, cardinal flower tends to grow along swamps, streams, and springs located in lowland woody areas. It prefers consistently moist, rich soil and may require additional fertilizer or compost during its growth periods. It can grow relatively tall, to a height of up to 6 feet (182 cm) under moderate sun exposure. Though its nectar is completely safe for its many pollinators, the alkaloid-rich foliage of this plant is toxic when consumed in considerable quantities. Wildlife will generally avoid grazing this plant, but do be wary if you have pets that may access its foliage.
11) Ostrich fern (Matteucia struthiopteris)
Matteucia struhtiopteris is commonly known as ostrich fern, fiddlehead fern, and shuttlecock fern. These common names describe the young fronds of this elegant species, which unfurl over time to reveal a wealth of feathery leaflets. Clumps of developing fronds initially retain a vase shape. This shape opens up in late spring or early summer and can resemble a bright green firework frozen in time. In temperate zones, the leaflets depreciate and die back during fall, after which the plant stays dormant throughout winter.
Ostrich fern can be grown on the shaded borders of your wildlife pond. Its tall leaves, which can reach a length of up to 2 meters (6 feet) at maturity, provide ample shade and cover to both small and large pond visitors. Fortunately, the vitamin-rich plant is able to withstand grazing by both rabbits and deer. It is largely disease and pest-free when both heat and humidity are kept at moderate levels.
12) Sweet pepperbush (Clethra alnifolia)
Wildflower bushes that tolerate moist soil are great options for the borders of a wildlife pond. The familiar features of these will attract many native amphibians and pollinators to your pond. If you live in the US, consider cultivating Clethra alnifolia, commonly referred to as alder leaf clethra, coastal pepperbush, or sweet pepperbush. Its fragrant white or pink-colored blooms will certainly attract butterflies, bumblebees, and hummingbirds in the summer. Eventually, its fruits will lure an assortment of wild birds and mammals to your pond.
The bushes of sweet pepperbush can tower over many plants as they can grow to a height of 12 feet (3.6 meters)! They produce multiple branching stems and deep green, oval-shaped leaves in spring. The leaves can draw more attention in fall, as they turn yellow and orange. This species and its many cultivars (e.g. ‘Crystalinia’, ‘Ruby Spice’, and ‘Sixteen Candles’) thrive best in consistently moist, acidic, and organically rich soil. Though this plant can tolerate full sun exposure, it would be best to situate it in a cool area that receives dappled sunlight.
If you are unable to find Clethra alnifolia in your area, consult local publications or horticultural specialists for native wildflowers that can occupy a similar niche. Ideally, they should provide both food and shade to your wildlife pond visitors! Do make sure that you purchase nursery-propagated wildflowers instead of procuring them directly from the wild.