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Alisma plantago-aquatica (common water-plantain)

An attractive wetland plant, common water-plantain has delicate white, pale pink or lilac flowers that open in late afternoon and close again at dusk.

Flower of Alisma plantago-aquatica

Flower of Alisma plantago-aquatica (Photo: Wolfgang Stuppy)

Species information

Scientific name: 

Alisma plantago-aquatica L.

Common name: 

common water-plantain, devil's spoons, mad dog weed, thumbwort

Conservation status: 

Least Concern according to IUCN Red List criteria.

Habitat: 

Pond margins, ditches, canals, slow-flowing rivers, streams and marshes; in shallow water or fertile mud.

Key Uses: 

Ornamental, medicine.

Known hazards: 

Poisonous if ingested in large quantities.

Taxonomy

Subclass: 
Superorder: 
Lilianae
Order: 
Alismatales
Family: 
Alismataceae
Genus: Alisma

About this species

Common water-plantain is a semi-aquatic or aquatic plant that is unrelated to true plantains, which are members of the genus Plantago.

Alisma is the ancient Greek physician Dioscorides’ name for a plantain-leaved plant. The specific epithet, plantago is from the Latin for the sole of a foot, referring to the flat leaves, and aquatica is from the Latin for ‘living in water’, referring to the plant’s habitat.

There are two subspecies of common water-plantain: Alisma plantago-aquatica subspecies plantago-aquatica, which is the most common and widespread of the two, and A. plantago-aquatica subsp. orientale, which occurs only in Asia.

Genus: 
Alisma

Discover more

Geography and distribution

Common water-plantain is a widespread temperate species occurring across Eurasia and from North Africa to Tanzania. It is also considered to be native in parts of Australia.

Alisma plantago-aquatica (common water-plantain) illustration

Illustration of Alisma plantago-aquatica (common water-plantain) (Image: Otto Wilhelm Thomé, taken from Flora von Deutschland, Österreich und der Schweiz, 1885)

It is widely cultivated and has been introduced and become naturalised in parts of North and South America, Australia and New Zealand.

Alisma plantago-aquatica subspecies orientale is native to eastern and central Asia.

Description

Overview: An aquatic or semi-aquatic perennial with a clumped habit, up to 1 m tall.

Leaves: Rosettes of grey-green, elliptic, ribbed leaves, rounded at the base, up to 30 cm long on long fleshy stems.

Flowers: Tall open panicles of white flowers, sometimes with a pink or pale lilac tinge, up to 15 mm in diameter. Petals and sepals are in threes; there are six stamens (male parts) and numerous (variable) stigmas/carpels (female parts).

Fruits: Made up of a cluster of numerous achenes (dry fruits containing one seed) up to 7 mm in diameter. The fruits are buoyant, allowing water-borne dispersal.

Seeds: Deep reddish-brown to light pink or yellow. Remaining viable in water for many years.

Flowering stems emerge from the centre of the leaf bases, and delicate white, pink or lilac flowers unfurl in the afternoon for only a few hours, before closing again at dusk. During this time, the flowers are pollinated by flies, which are attracted by small drops of nectar.

Uses

The rhizome (underground horizontal stem) is used as a diuretic, but prolonged use may cause gastroenteritis (inflammation of the stomach and intestines).

According to the Flora of Pakistan, the powdered root has been used as a cure for hydrophobia, and fresh leaves are used in homeopathy. The starch-rich rootstock is also eaten in some countries.

John Ruskin, the well-known Victorian art critic, believed that the curve of this plant’s leaves was representative of ‘divine proportion’, and advocated the emulation of nature and natural forms such as this in architecture, as in the Gothic style.

Millennium Seed Bank: Seed storage

Alisma plantago-aquatica (common water-plantain) seeds

Seeds of Alisma plantago-aquatica (Photo: Wolfgang Stuppy)

The Millennium Seed Bank Partnership aims to save plant life worldwide, focusing on plants under threat and those of most use in the future. Seeds are dried, packaged and stored at a sub-zero temperature in our seed bank vault.

12 collections of Alisma plantago-aquatica seeds are held in Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank based at Wakehurst in West Sussex.

See Kew’s Seed Information Database for further information on Alisma plantago-aquatica seeds

Cultivation

Common water-plantain makes a good marginal or emergent plant for a wildlife garden or around lakes or garden ponds. It performs best in full sun and can grow in any aspect, in an exposed or sheltered site. It can be planted in up to 30 cm of water.

It can be propagated from ripe seed, freshly sown, or by dividing the rhizomes in spring. It will reach full height within 2–5 years.

Alisma plantago-aquatica (common water-plantain) at Kew

Alisma plantago-aquatica in Kew’s Aquatic Garden

This species at Kew

Alisma plantago-aquatica was first recorded in cultivation at Kew in 1768. It was first recorded growing wild in its natural habitat in the Gardens in 1873.

In recent years, it has been found growing wild in the ditch alongside the towpath, in one spot beside the Lake, and in the Larch Pond in the Conservation Area. It has been planted near the Sir Joseph Banks Building and can also be seen in cultivation in the Aquatic Garden, next to the Grass Garden. It can also be found growing at Wakehurst, Kew’s sister garden.

Dried specimens of Alisma plantago-aquatica are held in Kew’s Herbarium, where they are available to researchers by appointment.

Specimens of root and tubers of common water-plantain, used in medicine, are held in Kew’s Economic Botany Collection, where they are available to researchers by appointment.

References and credits

Angiosperm Phylogeny Group (2009). An update of the Angiosperm Phylogeny Group classification for the orders and families of flowering plants: APG III. Botanical Journal of the Linnean Society 161: 105–121.

Angiosperm Phylogeny Website (2012). Available online (accessed 26 April 2012).

Biological Records Centre (BRC) (2012). Online Atlas of the British and Irish Flora: Alisma plantago-aquatica. Available from: http://www.brc.ac.uk/plantatlas/index.php?q=plant/alisma-plantago-aquatica (accessed 29 April 2012).

Botanical Society of the British Isles (BSBI). Maps Scheme. Available online (accessed 28 April 2012).

Chase, M. W. & Reveal, J. L. (2009). A phylogenetic classification of the land plants to accompany APG III. Botanical Journal of the Linnean Society 161: 122–127.

Conran, J. G. (2012). The genus Alisma L. (Alismataceae) in South Australia. Journal of Adelaide Botanic Garden 25: 11–15.

Cope, T. (2009). The Wild Flora of Kew Gardens: A Cumulative Checklist from 1759. Kew Publishing, Surrey.

Crocker, W. & Davis, W. E. (1914). Delayed germination in seed of Alisma plantago. Botanical Gazette 58: 285–321.

eFloras.org (2012). Flora of Pakistan: Alisma plantago-aquatica. Available online (accessed 29 April 2012).

Gledhill, D. (2008). The Names of Plants, 4th Edition. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Global Invasive Species Database (2012). Available online (accessed 6 November 2012).

IUCN (2012). IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, Version 2012.2. (Accessed 14 November 2012).

JNCC (Joint Nature Conservation Committee) (2012). The Vascular Plant Red Data List for Great Britain: Conservation Designations for UK Taxa. Available online (accessed 29 April 2012).

Mabberley, D. J. (2008). Mabberley’s Plant-book: a Portable Dictionary of Plants, their Classification and Uses, 3rd Edition. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Mabey, R. (1996). Flora Britannica. Sinclair-Stevenson, London.

Press, J. R., Shrestha, K. K. & Sutton, D. A. (2000). Annotated Checklist of the Flowering Plants of Nepal.Available online (accessed 28 November 2012).

Stace, C. (2010). New Flora of the British Isles, 3rd Edition. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Samuelsson, G. (1912). Alisma plantago-aquatica subsp. orientale. Arkiv för Botanik 24A(7): 16.

Spencer-Jones, R. & Cuttle, S. (2005). Wild Flowers of Britain and Ireland. Kyle Cathie, London.

The Plant List (2010). Alisma plantago-aquatica. Available online (accessed 19 Nov 2011).

Tutin, T. G., Heywood, V. H., Burges, N. A., Moore, D. M., Valentine, D. H., Walters, S. M & Webb, P. A. (1980). Flora Europaea. Volume 5: Alismataceae to Orchidaceae (Monocotyledons). Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

WCSP (2012). World Checklist of Selected Plant Families. Facilitated by the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. Available online (accessed 6 November 2012).

Kew science editors: Rhian Smith and Alice Lumb
Kew contributors: Paul Wilkin
Copyediting: Emma Tredwell

Although every effort has been taken to ensure that the information contained in these pages is reliable and complete, notes on hazards, edibility and suchlike included here are recorded information and do not constitute recommendations. No responsibility will be taken for readers’ own actions.

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