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6 Aquatic Plants in Lakes Across the Midwest

written by
Linda McDonagh


Have you ever looked across a lake, pond, or other waterway and wondered what lay below the waters?

You might be surprised to learn that there is actually a wide variety of aquatic plants among and within the different regions of the United States. Earlier, we covered the four main types of plants and some common examples in Florida and Virginia, but now we would like to delve into some of the plants native to certain regions starting with the Midwest.

As always, Clarke’s team of experts has decades of experience in managing aquatic plants of any kind – invasive or native. Start your aquatic plant strategy here.

TC Tao - 睡蓮 Water lily (Nymphaea tetragona)

Pond Lilies

The Pond Lily – or nymphaeaceae – is one of the most commonly pictured floating plants, and it is no wonder why. With its large, round pads and white with yellow flecked flowers, this rooted-floating plant is picturesque and adds greatly to the aesthetic of any waterbody.

  • Size and Shape: Large leaf pad, usually 6-8 inches in diameter.
  • Appearance: Rooted-Floating with white or yellow flowers and grows in small quantities – large coverage of surface can block out oxygen.
  • Copycats: There are several plant species similar to Nymphaeaceae that can often be mistaken for each other. These include the American lotus or Spatterdock.
  • Invasive?: While not all species of water lilies are considered invasive, certain ones are – such as the Mexican variety.
  • Located: Pond lilies can be found throughout the Midwest – in Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota and more.

Arrowhead, or Sagittaria latifoliaArrowhead

Arrowhead or sagittaria latifolia gets its name from its leaves that form arrows with three distinct points. Its roots have potato-like tubers growing in the mucky ground that are eaten by waterfowl, muskrats and more.

  • Size and Shape: Arrowhead plants grow up to four feet tall with long stalks and leaves
  • Appearance: Arrowhead is embedded in shallow waters with stalks and leaves that emerge from the water. It sometimes contains a flower near its leaf which is comprised of white or pink sepals and petals.
  • A Food Source: Since arrowhead has potato-like tubers, it can be used as a food source for not just animals, but people as well – when prepared properly. In fact, past Native Americans used this as an ingredient in their meals.
  • Controlling Arrowhead: Arrowhead overgrowths can be easily treated with a variety of herbicides applied with respect to the area, size and use of the waterbody.
  • Located: Arrowhead can be found in every state in the Midwest – Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota and more – as well as every state with the exception of Nevada and Alaska.

Coontail or Ceratophyllum demersumCoontail

Coontial or ceratophyllum demersum grows in underwater masses with no roots or grounding. Depending on how long it grows, it may reach and float on the surface of the water. Although it provides an excellent habitat for fish, it can contribute to algae growth and impeded recreational use if left unchecked. It can be found in still waters of lakes, ponds and streams.

  • Size and Shape: Coontail’s straight, flat leaves contain up to twelves leaves per whorl, each about a half-inch in length. The branches themselves usually reach about eleven feet long with off-shooting branches.
  • Appearance: Coontail has a long, hollow stem with thin, dark green spindle leaves – these leaves may be sparse towards the plant’s bottom, but grow more thickly towards the top, giving it the ‘Christmas tree’ or raccoon tail appearance it is known for.
  • An Aquarium Plant: Also known as ‘hornwort’, Coontail is a popular choice for aquarium plants as it provides shelter and play for fish.
  • Controlling Coontail: Since Coontail provides so much food and shelter for young fish, it is important to have on hand for many waterbodies. Management strategies should focus on removing as little as possible via cutting or raking that removes all plant fragments to avoid regeneration.
  • Located: Coontail can be found throughout the Midwest – in Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota and more.

Chara or muskgrassChara

Chara, also commonly known as muskgrass, is often found in clear, hard water. Although it can be easily mistaken for coontail or milfoil, it has a gristly film thanks to mineral deposits and can give off a ‘musky’ odor when squeezed.

  • Size and Shape: Chara is cylindrical growing several feet long with whorled branches that have 6six to fifteen off shooting branches
  • Appearance: Chara, or muskgrass, is a bright green color – lighter than most aquatic plants -, viney plant with spindly branches and leaves. It has no flowers and does not emerge above a waterbody’s surface.
  • Finding a Balance: Chara can assist a lake with water clarity as it helps stabilize nutrients and provides a habitat for fish. But note – Chara also grows rapidly and can quickly overtake small ponds of areas of lakes if not monitored.
  • Controlling Chara: For the most part, Chara is largely beneficial to lakes and ponds and should be monitored but not fully removed. In the case of overgrowth, hand-pulling, cutting and certain algicides can be used.
  • Located: Chara is found in lakes and lagoons with brackish water – particularly Michigan, Illinois, Minnesota and parts of Wisconsin.

Eurasian watermilfoilEurasian Watermilfoil

Eurasian Watermilfoil, or myriophyllum spicatum, forms thick mats within shallow areas of lakes. As it grows and spreads, it blocks sunlight – killing native plant species, the fish that feed on those and results in algae. It can spread easily to other lakes via boats, vehicles and equipment.

  • Size and Shape: Extends about three to ten feet – although it has been reported as long as thirty-three – with thin leaves that are about a half to two inches long.
  • Appearance: Eurasian watermilfoil grows in long, grey-green strands with fine leaves feathering out from it in a whorl shape. It can sometimes have a small yellow or red flower that rises a few inches above the water.
  • One of a Kind?: There are quite a few submerged plants, including several other varieties of watermilfoils. One such example is the native northern watermilfoil – this one has less than twelve leaf segments on each of its sides compared to Eurasian watermilfoil’s fourteen or more.
  • Controlling Eurasian Watermilfoil: There are several herbicides that can be applied via licensed applicators and used to curb Eurasian watermilfoil – and they are best done in the spring while the plant is still in its early stages of growth. This reduces negative impacts on surrounding native plants.
  • Located: Eurasian Watermilfoil is an invasive species which has worked its way across the continental United States, as well as several Canadian provinces.

Curly pondweed, foliage - Photo by Chris Evans; University of IllinoisCurly-Leaf Pondweed

Curly-Leaf Pondweed, or potamogeton crispus, is yet another aquatic plant known for forming dense mats that impede recreational activities. Unlike many other similar plants, it does not create habitats for or serve as a food source for fish and wildlife. It is also susceptible to mid-season die-offs, resulting in algae and dead plants littered along shorelines.

  • Size and Shape: Curly-leaf pondweed consists of one large stem – which can grow to be fifteen feet long – with oblong leaves that grow from four to ten centimeters long and five to ten millimeters wide.
  • Appearance: Rooted and fully submerged, this aquatic plant varies in color from olive green to a rust-brown and has wavy or ‘curly’ leaves extending from it. It can sometimes have a flower stalk that extends above the surface and is a green color.
  • One of Many: Curly-leaf pondweed is another plant with lots of close relatives – broad-leaf pondweed, clasping-lead pondweed and narrow-leaf pondweed to name just a few – but can be distinguished by its curly, almost serrated-looking leaves.
  • Controlling Curly-Leaf Pondweed: Both mechanical and herbicides methods can be used, but preventing curly-leaf pondweed is key. Make sure that you are cleaning all watercraft, draining water from drains, disposing of bait in the trash (rather than reusing in new lakes), and drying out equipment for three weeks before using them in a new waterbody.
  • Located: Similar to Eurasian watermilfoil, curly-leaf pondweed is highly invasive and can be found throughout the United States, including Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin and Minnesota.

Looking for Management of Your Waterbody’s Aquatic Plants?

Our experts at Clarke have years of experience working with a vast variety of lakes, ponds, stormwater ponds and more throughout the United States, with a focus on catering to their unique needs and goals and an emphasis on using science-based techniques and technologies to do so. For a free assessment or any questions regarding your waterbody’s quality, contact our team here. To learn more about our aquatic plant management capabilities in the Midwest, click here.

Learn more about aquatic plants, what makes them invasive versus native and more with Clarke’s Guide to Native and Invasive Plants and Weeds.