Aquatic Plants: Submergent, Emergent, Floating-leaf and Free-floating

What is the difference between emergent, submergent and other aquatic vegetation?

Emergent Plants:

emerge or have a large portion of their shoots, leaves or flowering structures out of the water.  These include the familiar  macrophytes: cattails, and also bulrushes, wild rice, sedges, bur-reed and many other graminoids.  Emergent vegetation can refer to any wetland plant that is above the water, however for the purposes of the this website I will categorize a plant as emergent only if is frequently aquatic in habit.

Emergent Plant

Wild Rice (Zizania sp.), and emergent plant

Submergent Plants:

plants that have most of their structures below water.  Common examples of these would be coontail, milfoils, and many pondweeds.

Submergent Plant Photo

Submergent Plants

Floating-leaf Plants:

have floating leaves on the surface of the water.  They include the water-lilies, some pondweeds, and American lotus, although the latter often protrude from the water.

Spatterdock waterlily photo

Spatterdock, (Nuphar avenda), a yellow watter lily in Lake Poygan, Wisconsin


Free-floating Plants:

these non-rooted plants include the duckweeds, common bladderwort and often coontail.  Coontail is sometimes rooted, but it is dislodged easily by wave action and will continue growing in a floating mass, or tangled in with other plants.

Free-floating Plant Photo

Free-Floating Plant – Least Duckweed (Lemna minor)

 Mixed Type:

Some plants have a mixture of different stages of growth.  As mentioned above, American Lotus can be a floating-leaf plant, or the leaf can emerge from the water on its stem.  Some pondweeds have both underwater (submergent) leaves, and floating leaves.  Coontail, which is one of our most common aquatic plants, is often not rooted and drifts around, getting caught in other vegetation.  These differences can be somewhat confusing, and most often these species with “in between” growth patterns are simply labeled one or the other.

American Lotus

American lotus an aquatic plant that can be both emergent and floating-leaf.

Note:  Most often freshwater aquatic plants are simply referred to as weeds or even seaweed.  This is unfortunate as a weed is very negative word.  Aquatic plants are extremely important to lake health.  In science we often call aquatic plants, aquatic macrophotyes to include some of the macro algae like chara and nittella.

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Aerial video of different types of wetlands featuring emergent and floating vegetation.

Aquatic Vegetation

Emergent, Submergent, floating leaf aquatic plants, macrophytes


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