In July and August when temperatures soar, all of our garden’s inhabitants, including the humans, are drawn to the cool oasis that our little 4 foot x 12 foot water garden provides. Fish swim beneath reflections of Swamp Lily blooms while birds dip in and out of the upper pool. Dragonflies light on the Pickerel Rush, and the Green “banjo” frog (Rana clamitans) sings beneath the Goldenclub.
As with many garden triumphs, this happy community of native plants and animals developed more by chance than design. Sixteen years ago when my husband dug the pond in our shady backyard, the challenge was finding anything that would thrive and bloom in light shade with little or no direct sun. Luckily, the shady margins of our Southeastern streams and lakes have produced a number of plants that fill the bill.
The show begins in spring when the Goldenclub (Orontium aquaticum) emerges. Also called “Bog Candle” for its interesting yellow and white flowers, Goldenclub’s beautiful silvery green leaves bead up water as if it were mercury leading to another common name: “Never Wet.”
Pickerel Rush (Pontederia cordata) sends up bright blue flower spikes throughout the summer alongside the white flowers of Bulltongue Arrowhead (Sagittaria lancifolia). Both have dramatic foliage. The show peaks in July when the Swamp Lily’s (Crinum americanum) white trumpets open revealing bright magenta stamens. While these plants have been excellent choices for our small, shady water garden, they also work well in sun.
Full-sun water gardens, especially those with a bit more size, provide homes for some of the most dramatic native plants. Fragrant Waterlily (Nymphaea odorata) leaves float on the surface providing cover for fish, while the blooms perfume the evening garden. The flowers of Yellow Lotus (Nelumbo lutea) rise high above the foliage and leave behind dramatic seed pods. The large, showy blossoms of Crimson-eyed Mallow (Hibiscus moscheutos) brighten a sunny shoreline all summer.
Most water garden plants are somewhat aggressive, so we plant them in containers filled with heavy clay topsoil topped with gravel. Large containers without holes should be used for very aggressive plants such as waterlilies and lotus. Lifting and dividing the containers every few years helps keep plants in balance. As with all native plants, make certain the nursery you’re buying from propagates their plants. Never buy plants collected from the wild.
Lizard Tail (Saururus cernuus), named for its showy, fragrant flower, is the only one of our original water garden choices we no longer recommend. Like Cattails (Typha latifolia), Lizard Tail is an extremely aggressive native best enjoyed in its natural setting.
Dale Batchelor is the founder of Gardener by Nature LLC, a company offering garden consultation, design, management services, and gardening classes. Her display garden, co-created with her husband, John L. Thomas, is a certified National Wildlife Federation Backyard Habitat and a native plant habitat recognized by the North Carolina Native Plant Society.