By Betsy Washington, Northern Neck Chapter
Pickerelweed (Pontederia cordata) is a standout in any garden pond, or freshwater coastal stream or river when its showy lavender-blue flowers are held above the foliage on tall stems. This perennial grows in shallow water where it tolerates up to 2’ of occasional flooding but prefers less than one foot of water. These plants spread by rhizomes into large colonies in the shallow water of ponds or shorelines.
Pickerelweed naturally grows in along the edges of both freshwater and lightly brackish (oligohaline) tidal marshes and alluvial swamps on the upper reaches of tidal streams and rivers and along rocky or sandy river shores where its thick rhizomes spread into large colonies. It is common in the Coastal Plain of Virginia and infrequent in the outer Piedmont and rarely found in the inner Piedmont and Mountains.
The large, glossy arrowhead-shaped leaves are held upright on tall stalks and can reach up to 10” long with a rounded heart-shaped base and pointed tip. Beginning in June, tall showy spikes of lavender-blue tubular flowers are held 1 – 2’ above the water surface, delighting humans and attracting a multitude of pollinators and butterflies to their nectar. The small tubular flowers are held in densely packed flower spikes on tall stems and make a spectacular summer-long show. Flowers open from the bottom to the top of the spike and often continue flowering into October. Individual flowers may have a small yellow or white marking inside the corolla that serves as a nectar-guide for pollinators. Although their main pollinators are bees, especially bumblebees, two species of specialist bees also rely on the pollen of Pickerelweed to feed their young. Numerous butterflies are attracted to the nectar and are often seen visiting the flowers.
After flowering, the flower stalks droop down towards the water releasing the seeds so that they are dispersed downstream. The oblong green fruits each contain a single starchy seed with distinctive toothed ridges. The seeds are readily eaten by birds and waterfowl and many aquatic animals and fish find shelter in the dense foliage of Pickerelweed growing along the shores, giving rise to the common name, “pickerel” weed. In fact, Wood Duck ducklings with their Mama can sometimes be seen surrounded by a protective camouflage of Pickerelweed. Some dragonflies and damselflies lay their eggs on the stems of Pickerelweed which drop into the water, develop into the aquatic larval stage, and months later crawl up the pickerelweed stem to emerge as the adult. Humans can get in on the feast too, as the seeds and young stalks and leaves of Pickerelweed are all edible, either fresh from the plants or boiled or roasted.
Pickerelweed is a long-lived plant and is easy to grow in shallow water along pond or stream edges in fresh or slightly brackish waters where its rhizomatous roots help stabilize the shoreline. It prefers rich, mucky, loamy soils and full sun and can also be grown as an excellent container plant in small ornamental ponds or even a large container of water to prevent excessive spreading. Take care to maintain a consistent water depth of a few inches so that the roots are saturated at all times but the leaves are not submerged. Every few years plants can be divided with a sharp knife to increase plantings or give divisions away to friends if roots become too crowded.
It is well worth pausing wherever you see this plant to admire its beauty and the abundance of wildlife this stunning plant supports!
Pickerelweed was the Northern Neck Native Plant Society July 2023 Plant of the Month.