Where aquatic plants grow

Aquatic plant.Within a lake or pond, aquatic plants grow in an area known as the littoral zone--the shallow transition zone between dry land and the open water area of the lake. In Minnesota waters, the littoral zone extends from the shore to a depth of about 15 feet, depending on water clarity. The shallow water, abundant light, and nutrient-rich sediment provide ideal conditions for plant growth. Aquatic plants, in turn, provide food and habitat for many animals such as fish, frogs, birds, muskrats, turtles, insects, and snails. Protecting the littoral zone is important for the health of many of a lake's fish and other animal populations.

Aquatic plants are grouped into four major categories:

  1. Algae have no true roots, stems, or leaves and range in size from tiny, one-celled organisms to large, multi-celled plant-like organisms, such as chara or muskgrass. Plankton algae, which consist of free-floating microscopic plants, grow throughout both the littoral zone and the well-lit surface waters of an entire lake. Other forms of algae, including stringy filamentous types, are common only in the littoral area.
  2. Submerged plants have stems and leaves that grow entirely underwater, although some may also have floating leaves. Flowers and seeds on short stems that extend above the water may also be present. Submerged plants grow from near shore to the deepest part of the littoral zone (see Figure 1, below) and display a wide range of plant shapes. Depending on the species, they may form a low-growing "meadow" near the lake bottom, grow with lots of open space between plant stems, or form dense stands or surface mats.
  3. Floating-leaf plants are rooted in the lake bottom, but their leaves and flowers float on the water surface. Water lilies are a well-known example. Floating leaf plants typically grow in protected areas where there is little wave action.
  4. Emergent plants are rooted in the lake bottom, but their leaves and stems extend out of the water. Cattails, bulrushes, and other emergent plants typically grow in wetlands and along the shore, where the water is typically less than 4 or 5 feet deep.

As Figure 1 illustrates, each of the four types of aquatic plants favors a certain water depth. Typically, however, the growth areas are not sharply divided. Expect to see overlap in growth--submerged plants, for example, are often interspersed among floating-leaf varieties.

Diagram showing sections of the littoral zone: emergent plants, floating-leaf plants, submergent plants and algae.

The width of the littoral zone will vary within a lake and among lakes. In places where the slope of the lake bottom is steep, the littoral area may be narrow, extending several feet from the shoreline. In contrast, if the lake is shallow and the bottom slopes gradually, the littoral area may extend hundreds of feet into the lake or may even cover it entirely.

Cloudy or stained water, which limits light penetration, may restrict plant growth. In lakes where water clarity is low all summer, aquatic plants will not grow throughout the littoral zone but will be restricted to shallow areas near shore.

Other physical factors also influence the distribution of plants within a lake or pond. For example, aquatic plants generally thrive in shallow, calm water protected from heavy wind, wave, or ice action. However, if the littoral area is exposed to the frequent pounding of waves, plants may be scarce. In a windy location, the bottom may be sand, gravel, or large boulders--none of which provides a good place for plants to take root. In areas where a stream or river enters a lake, plant growth can be variable. Nutrients carried by the stream may enrich the sediments and promote plant growth, or suspended sediments may cloud the water and inhibit growth.

In summary: Where aquatic plants grow and how abundant they are may vary greatly from lake to lake, and even within a lake itself. Qualified lake specialists can help you decide what you should or should not do. DNR regional Fisheries staff can help direct you to available resources and aquatic plant specialists.