Once considered unusable swampland, only suitable for draining and filling, wetlands are increasingly appreciated. In fact, the trend today is to restore and construct wetlands for the many benefits that they can provide, such as stormwater and wastewater purification, sediment filtration, wildlife habitat, and erosion control and reduction. For this reason, wetlands are often referred to as the “kidneys of the landscape.”
Plants That Grow in Florida Wetlands
Florida is home to hundreds of native wetland plant species that thrive in damp to wet soils and even more that live in, on, or underwater. These include submersed plants, emersed plants, and floating and floating-leaved plants.
Aquatic macrophytes are plants visible to the human eye and that grow in water or in wet areas. Some are rooted in wetlands sediments, and others float on the surface of the water. The term aquatic macrophyte is used to distinguish these plants from algae.
These aquatic plants are grouped into categories:
- Floating and floating-leaved
Native Submersed Plants
As the name implies, submersed aquatic macrophytes grow mainly under the water’s surface. Some are free-floating, and some are rooted in the sediment. They have a wide variety of shapes and sizes, and you can find them in virtually every Florida waterbody. Light, nutrient availability, temperature, water clarity, pH, and sediment stability all affect where these plants grow.
Common Florida native submersed plants include:
Tape Grass (Vallisneria americana)—typically grows in clear bodies of water and is often home to bass, bream, shad, and other baitfish.
Sago Pondweed (Potamogeton pectinatus)—this submerged native grass grows mostly in water less than six feet deep.
Florida Bladderwort (Utricularia floridana)—this large rooted carnivorous plant feasts on nematodes, water fleas, tadpoles, and mosquito larvae. It gets its name from the bladder-like traps that capture its prey.
Coontail (Ceratophyllum demersum)—this free-floating submerged plant is commonly found in central Florida waterbodies. It has feather-like leaves that resemble the tail of a raccoon.
Roles of the submersed plant include:
- Stabilize shorelines and sediments
- Habitat for fish and wildlife
- Increase water clarity
- Affect nutrient cycles
- Increase/decrease dissolved oxygen concentrations
- Contribute to muck accumulation
Native Emersed Plants
These plants grow in water-saturated or submersed soils near the edge of water bodies, with the stems and leaves grow above the water. They can grow in damp, exposed sediments in times of low-water conditions.
Common native Florida emersed plants include:
Cattails (Typha species) — these are easily identifiable by their brown, cylinder-shaped flower that looks like a cat’s tail. They grow along the water’s edge and offer nesting locations and protection for wildlife.
Duck Potato (Sagittaria lancifolia) — this plant has swollen underground stems that look like potatoes, hence the name Duck potato. They also have white three-petal flowers that extend high about the stems and large, lance-shaped leaves. They grow in ditches, swamp, streams, and lakes.
Lemon Bacopa (Bacopa caroliniana) — this emersed creeping herb features small blue flowers, a hairy upper stem, and thick succulent leaves. When crushed the leaves give off a lemon-like scent.
Lake Hygrophila (Hygrophila lacustris) — featuring narrow elliptic leaves and small white flowers, this semi-aquatic plant is found in swamps and wet hammocks.
Bur Marigold (Bidens laevis) — a member of the daisy family, this emersed flowering plant is found in marshes.
Roles of emersed plants include:
- Reduce shoreline erosion
- Provide food (seeds and leaves) for waterfowl
- Provide habitat for wildlife
Native Free-Floating and Floating-Leaved Plants
Free-floating and floating-leaved plants are not anchored to the sediment, the water provides nutrients for them.
Common native Florida free-floating and floating-leaved plants include:
Water Meal (Wolffia columbiana) — the world’s smallest flowering plant, water meal is a small floating, barely visible plant.
Small Duckweed (Lemna valdiviana) — these tiny floating plants have shoe-shaped leaves with a single root underneath. They float in sluggish or still waters.
Giant Duckweed (Spirodela polyrhiza) — while not giant by our standards, the giant duckweed consists of 2-3 rounded leaves connected with several roots beneath each leaf.
Water Lily (Nymphaea aquatica) — known for its delicate white or pink flowers, the water lily is commonly found in lakes and streams.
Water Shield (Brasenia schreberi) — found in lakes and slower streams, this free-flowing plant features long leaf stalks that extend downward and root in the mud at the bottom of the waterbody.
American Lotus (Nelumbo lutea) — found in muddy and shallow waters, the American lotus can be either emersed for free-floating. Its large yellow flowers make this plant easy to spot.
Roles of floating plants and floating-leaved plants include:
- Reduce shoreline erosion
- Provide habitat and food for fish and wildlife
- Build sediment and makes a waterbody shallower.
Native Grasses, Sedges, and Rushes
As the name implies, aquatic grasses look like grass growing in the water. Some are completely submerged, and others are rooted in the sediment with their leaves and stems above the waterline.
Native Florida grasses, sedges, and rushes include:
Maidencane (Panicum hemitomon) — found in freshwater and on dry banks, with long stems measuring up to six feet, maidencane offers nesting materials, protection, and food to local wildlife.
Egyptian Paspalidium (Paspalidium geminatum) — featuring long leaves and thick, tufted stems, this plant blooms year-round in swamps and ponds.
Giant Foxtail (Setaria magna) — another year-round bloomer, giant foxtail favors deep ditches in swamps and wetlands.
Saw-Grass (Cladium jamaicense) — commonly found in fresh and brackish water wetlands, saw grass provides shelter and food to birds and other types of wildlife. It is a large sedge with stems that can grow 4-10 feet high with sharp leaves and spikelets.
Soft-Stem Bulrush (Scirpus validus)—this sedge can grow up to eight feet high and is topped by a hanging flower cluster. Found in streams, ponds, and marshes, they supply food for local wild birds.
Soft Rush (Juncus effusus)—soft rush grows in clumps in fresh and saltwater wetlands. Its pale green stems grow 2-5 feet and have no leaves. Clusters of small green-brown flowers seem to grow out of the sides of the stems, and the base is wrapped in reddish, leafy sheaths.
Roles of grasses, sedges, and rushes include:
- Traps soil, nutrients, and water
- Provides a natural habitat for birds and wildlife
- Improves water quality
Wetlands Plants That Help Control Erosion
There are many plants that can help control erosion, but not all of them are the best choice. Non-native plant species can quickly become invasive nuisances. Using native plants is a safe, effective way to prevent and control erosion.
Invasive aquatic plants usually have multiple reproductive methods and grow rapidly to reproductive maturity. This allows them to become widely dispersed very quickly. It also makes them difficult to control as they degrade entire ecosystems. This causes extreme oxygen depletion and pH changes that can kill or stunt the fish population, which in turn reduces species diversity. In the long run, recreational opportunities are reduced and property values are lower.
Florida native plants grow well in wetlands and need less care than many non-native plants. Alternatively, non-native plants can become invasive, as mentioned, and crowd out native plants, throwing the wetland ecosystem off balance. In addition to helping control erosion, native plants also provide habitat for native birds and wildlife.
What Do You Call Plants That Control Erosion in a Wetland?
The plants that work best are called “edge” plants, stiff-stemmed species that grow in water and are planted along the shoreline. Planting a healthy littoral shelf will provide the most protection against shoreline erosion. As waves brush up against the stems of the edge plants, the water’s force is weakened, and the soil remains in place.
How Erosion Control Plants Work
Erosion is a natural process that happens when the soil gets displaced. There are three leading causes of soil erosion:
- Heavy water flow
- Strong winds
- Human activity
In wetlands, heavy water flow is a natural cause of erosion. Climate change and urban development are human activities responsible for erosion. Erosion control plants send out a root system that binds the soil and helps hold the shoreline. They serve as a protective layer that can
prevent soil erosion.
For example, grasses and sedges planted along the shoreline of water bodies act as a thick barrier that can slow water flow. Their roots hold the soil in position so that it is harder for it to wash away. These plants also protect the soil from direct rainfall as they break the impact of raindrops when they hit the ground, helping to prevent soil runoff. Emersed plants with strong root systems also buffer the wave action in lakes and ponds, protecting upland plant roots and helping to prevent erosion.
Plants for erosion control should be planted along the shoreline in rows that are fairly close together. This helps them grow together quickly and increase their effectiveness. Vertical shoreline plants rarely spread beyond their desired area because they cannot grow water that is deeper than 12 inches and cannot spread up the bank.
Shoreline plants can:
- Stabilize the bank and prevent erosion
- Filter pollutants and debris
- Get rid of nutrients that cause algae growth
- Offer cover and forage for songbirds, fish, and frogs
- Shade the water
- Reduce wave and wind energy
What you don’t plant is just as important as what you do plant. Large shrubs and trees should not be planted close to the water’s edge because they can reduce the storage capacity of the basin and block maintenance equipment. Trailing plants can grow large mats that cover the water’s surface, impeding its circulation and flow.
Restoring or maintaining wetland vegetation along the shore is an efficient and eco-friendly way to protect property from erosion and lakes and streams from sedimentation. The richness of the animal and plant communities found in wetlands make them some of Florida’s most attractive natural environments.