How Are Aquatic Plants Pollinated?

When we think about pollination, we tend to only think about terrestrial plants. However, a large number of plants are not and actually live fully or partially in the water. These plants also need to reproduce, and thus need to have their flowers pollinated to produce seed. How do they do it? In today’s post, I will try to give a (short) answer to that question, using some native plants as examples.

You may recall from previous posts, that flowering plants require pollination to be able to produce seeds and thus reproduce. Since we are terrestrial organisms ourselves, we tend to be more aware of other organisms and processes that share that trait with us, and pollination is no exception. However, there are lots of flowering plants that are completely or partially aquatic, and these plants also require pollination to produce seeds. Depending on the specific requirements of the plants in question, some of them may use different strategies for pollination.

Wind pollination

Many aquatic or semi-aquatic plants depend on wind to transfer pollen to the female reproductive structures. Especially under conditions distant from land, using wind as a means of pollen dispersal can be extremely advantageous. In fact, being distant from land tends to reduce the types and number of animals that can visit the flowers of aquatic plants. By depending more heavily on wind, these plants usually display light and abundant pollen that can be readily blown away and potentially deposited on the stigma of the female counterparts. A global evaluation of this indicated that about a third of all aquatic plants in the world are wind-pollinated.

In Maryland, an aquatic plant known to be wind-pollinated are watershields (Brasenia schreberi). This plant has non-showy flowers that display both anthers and stigmas. In order for the plant to promote cross-pollination (i.e., avoid receiving pollen from its own flowers), the flowers of these plants go through a complex blooming process that spans two days. This process involves on the first day the receptivity of the stigma (the female part that receives the pollen) and on the second day the maturation and release of the pollen grains. When the grains mature, they are swept by the wind and can reach stigmas from other flowers that are at that point going through their first flowering maturation step.

Animal pollination

It has been shown that a large number of aquatic plants are at least partially pollinated by insects or other animals. In fact, as is also the case in terrestrial plants, aquatic plants can sometimes use both wind and animals to transfer pollen, increasing the chances of some pollen eventually reaching the stigma. Animal-pollinated aquatic plants are pollinated by a large variety of organisms, but their identity will depend on the specific place where the plant is growing and the ability of the pollinator to reach the plant and even survive in that environment. For example, while large bees may be able to fly further away from land, smaller insects may mostly visit plants that are close to land.

A special case of insect pollination of a Maryland native is that of the arrow arum or tuckahoe (Peltandra virginica). The species belongs to the Araceae family and displays a stunning pollination system. As is often the case in this family of plants (see also the skunk cabbage example we talked about in a previous post), the maturation of the female and male flowers is linked to the production of specific aromas. In the case of the arrow arum, these smells attract small flies, and in particular individuals of Elachiptera formosa. These flies seek the flowers to mate, feed on pollen, and eventually lay eggs on the plant, making this an example of what is called nursery pollination (the plant receives a pollination service in exchange for providing a brood site for the pollinator). By moving along the flower, these tiny flies move pollen from the anthers to the stigmas. Some of this pollen may come from the same plant, but other pollen may come from a different flower already visited by the flies.

Water pollination

Finally, many aquatic plants display flowers that are either completely submerged or floating on the surface of water. These plants usually use water currents to disperse their pollen. As with wind, this dispersal is very inaccurate, which usually leads to the release of a large amount of pollen. These plants have either pollen that floats on water or remains attached to the anthers which float to the stigma.

aquatic plants with tiny white flowers on the surface of water
The American pondweed is one of our native species that uses water as their means of pollen dispersal. Note the very small white flowers that are placed on the surface of water. Photo: C. Fisher

A very common native from Maryland that displays this type of pollination is the pond- or waterweed (Elodea canadensis). This species native to North America displays flowers that have either anthers or pistils, but not both. The flowers with anthers are often displayed over the water, from where they release the pollen, which lands and then travels on its surface. By moving on the surface of the water, the pollen can reach the slightly submerged stigmas of the pistilate (female) flowers, which are held on flowers that float at the very surface of the water. Because such a dispersal can lead to large pollen loss, pollen release in this species is only done when the wind is light and the water current is low. This promotes a more “controlled” dispersal and increases the chances of the pollen effectively reaching the stigmas.

By Anahí Espíndola, Assistant Professor, Department of Entomology, University of Maryland, College Park. See more posts by Anahí.

Anahí also writes an Extension Blog in Spanish! Check it out here,, and please share and spread the word to your Spanish-speaking friends and colleagues in Maryland. ¡Bienvenidos a Extensión en Español!

One thought on “How Are Aquatic Plants Pollinated?

  1. Sue Joyce September 11, 2023 / 10:15 am

    you answered a question that many of us wondered about.

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