Freshwater ecosystems contain some of the most diverse plant and animal life. Every organism has adapted to a life filled with water to one degree or another. Trees, in particular, have an interesting relationship with freshwater
Trees that grow in freshwater are typically located in swamps. Their seed dispersal is often dependent on water levels, flooding, or both. Common trees that grow in freshwater include bald cypress, willow, pumpkin ash, swamp tupelo, and water tupelo.
Let’s take a look at some of the trees that grow in freshwater and figure out why these trees have adapted to such an aquatic environment!
1. Bald Cypress Tree
Bald cypress trees go by many names – southern cypress, swamp cypress, red-, yellow-, and white- cypress, as well as gulf cypress.
These water-loving trees grow along the east coast from Delaware to Florida, continuing along the southern gulf coast from Florida to eastern Texas. They can also be found inland in Louisianna, Arkansas, Indiana, Mississippi, Missouri, and Tennessee.
The most common place you’ll find a bald cypress is in a wet floodplain or swamp. This tree’s favorite environment is somewhere that floods frequently. According to the United States Forest Service, they can withstand being submerged in up to 10 ft of water.
Considering the tree can grow up to 150 ft tall, ten feet doesn’t seem like that much…
Why Do Bald Cypress Trees Grow In Freshwater?
Bald cypress trees are monoecious, meaning both the male and female parts are found on the same tree. The tree self-pollinates during March and April, with female cones carrying anywhere from 2 to 34 seeds per cone.
As the cones mature, they will begin dropping scales that contain seeds. Sometimes, entire cones will drop from the tree instead of just a few scales here and there.
Some seeds are spread by squirrels that pick up the scales, eat a few seeds, and discard the rest.
However, the most important way that bald cypress tree seeds are distributed is from floodwater. The water carries scales, or whole cones, downstream and spreads them to areas where they can flourish.
This is why floodwaters are so important for the bald cypress tree and why they actually prefer to be in freshwater. Additionally, bald cypress trees benefit from flooding because with the water comes an explosion of nutrients that the tree can use.
Bald cypress trees are important trees for a lot of waterfowl, eagles, and aquatic organisms like catfish and frogs.
You can learn even more about bald cypress trees in our article 5 Different Uses For Bald Cypress Cones And Balls!
2. Water Tupelo
Also known as Nyssa aquatica, water tupelos are wide-based trees that narrow as it grows. It’s found in many of the same regions as bald cypress but does not extend as far into Florida or inland.
The water tupelo has an even higher tolerance for flooding, able to withstand being submerged in up to 13 feet of water for long durations.
Instead of having a cone as fruit like the bald cypress, water tupelo produces a drupe that’s about one inch long and typically dark purple. Inside each fruit is a stone that contains a single seed.
Water Tupelos provide food in the form of their fruits to ducks and squirrels. Deer also feed on the twigs and buds of this important freshwater tree species.
Why Do Water Tupelo Trees Grow In Freshwater?
Being able to grow in freshwater is a unique characteristic of a tree. It’s the same as how cacti adapted to living with so little water. The extreme environment means there is little competition with other trees or shrubs, giving the water tupelo a better chance of survival.
According to the US Forest Service, just like the bald cypress, water tupelo seeds are spread mainly through flooding.
As long as the stone is intact it will float downstream and eventually land in moist soil. From there, the seed will sit until the next flood when it sinks further beneath the soil and eventually sprouts.
3. Red Maple
When you think of red maple trees, you may not think about swamps and wet environments since these trees can survive in dry conditions just as well. But red maple trees will flourish in wet, swampy soils too.
Red maples are a short-lived tree, typically making it to the 150-year mark before dying off. The brilliant fall foliage of red maples makes them an attractive tree for landscapes, medians, and sidewalk ornaments.
Animals appreciate the red maple as well. Deer, elk, squirrels, raccoons, and other small mammals use the red maple for food, especially during winter.
Why Do Red Maples Grow In Freshwater?
Unlike the water tupelo and bald cypress trees, red maples do not use flooding or water to spread their seeds. Instead, they use the wind.
Red maple seeds are attached to fruit that many people call helicopters or whirligigs. They are winged and incredibly light. So, if red maples don’t use water to carry their seeds, why grow in freshwater?
The main reason red maples prefer to grow in freshwater is that it has more nutrients and the tree grows faster than if it were in dry soils. According to the University of Florida, red maples grow the best in wet places.
Once the seeds disperse from the tree and land where the wind takes them, seeds that land on wet soil tend to have the best chance of sprouting.
If you’d like to learn more about maple trees and how to Identify them, check out our article comparing oak and maple trees here.
4. Black Spruce
The black spruce tree has an interesting history behind its name. The description of ‘black’ comes from the appearance of having black branches when viewed on mountain slopes.
However, the tree is most often found in bogs and swamps, so people rarely see this coloration. Its species name ‘Mariana’ means ‘Maryland,’ but the tree is not found in Maryland…
Certainly a strange conundrum. But weird names aside, the black spruce grows in northern North America throughout Canada and the northeastern United States. According to Adirondacks Forever Wild, it has the smallest cone of any spruce.
The black spruce prefers cold climates that are humid and often grow in wet soils, swamps, and bogs.
Why Do Black Spruce Trees Grow In Freshwater?
Once mature, the cones of the black spruce tree will drop scales periodically. It’s not common for entire cones to drop.
However, much like the red maple, black spruce seeds are not dispersed by water or flooding. They’re normally dispersed by wind and can get help from wildfires that open the cones up.
So, why live in water?
Black spruce trees prefer bogs because they are nutrient-deficient and therefore there is less competition with other trees. Bogs are not very productive, so black spruce trees have the chance to thrive.
Under these conditions, black spruce trees typically have stunted growth due to the lack of nutrients. But at least they survive, right?
5. Willow Tree
The willow tree is more of a group name than an actual species of tree. There are many different willow tree species such as:
Just to name a few. Most willows love water, but some species grow on dry soils on prairies or open woods as well.
Willow trees are essential to the stabilization of stream banks and other water systems. The roots help hold the soil together, preventing erosion.
If you’d like to learn more about willow trees, our article Willows & Weeping Willow Trees: 15 Differences & Similarities goes in-depth!
Why Do Willow Trees Grow In Freshwater?
Weeping willows are probably the most well-known willow tree. It’s found near ponds, streams, rivers, and swamps.
Most willows use stream currents or flood currents to carry seeds downriver. They are then deposited on stream banks or river banks where they can sprout.
Willows are used by a variety of animals and fish. According to the Missouri Department of Conservation, roots that are exposed either partially or completely in water provide homes for fish, turtles, newts, and salamanders. Beavers use them to build dams. Deer and other animals browse willow trees when other food is scarce.
Willows are also useful in the reclamation of disturbed sites such as quarries or mines. Through its own chemical processes to grow and receive nutrients, willow trees can remediate such sites to help stabilize the soil and reduce contaminates.
6. Pumpkin Ash Tree
Pumpkin ash trees can be found in discontinuous clumps along the east coast, down to northern Florida, and in patches in Arkansas, Missouri, Illinois, Tennessee, and Indiana.
The tree gets its name from the bloated pumpkin-shaped base it can get when growing in standing water such as swamps. At least this tree’s name is a little less of a mystery than the black spruce, right?
The pumpkin ash is considered critically endangered due to the emerald ash borer, a pest that infests all ash trees that have been sweeping through the United States.
You can learn more about ash trees in our article Here’s How Much Water Ash Trees Actually Need!
Why Do Pumpkin Ash Trees Grow In Freshwater?
Wetlands and swamps are the pumpkin ash’s favorite types of habitat. They thrive in areas with standing water, even if it’s for prolonged periods.
Pumpkin ash trees use water and flooding to disperse their seeds. The seeds are contained in lightweight, winged fruit, which is usually carried by the wind. However, some drop into the water and are carried by the current.
The fruits of the pumpkin ash are also food for wood ducks and a few other waterfowl. When food is scarce, deer will nibble on the leaves.
7. Swamp Tupelo
As the name suggests, swamp tupelos are closely related to the water tupelo. They are all in the same genus, Nyssa, which refers to the Greek water nymph.
The swamp tupelo thrives in areas of frequent flooding. The tree will form a bloated base that reaches the height of the average level of flooding each season and then begins to taper into a normal-sized trunk.
The best environment for swamp tupelo is where the water is shallow but remains moving. The growth of swamp tupelos can be stunted when grown in stagnant water or in prolonged flooding. Picky picky…
Why Do Swamp Tupelo Trees Grow In Freshwater?
The niche environment that the swamp tupelo requires is due to the way it disperses its seeds. Seeds cannot flourish while submerged in water, but neither can they survive without water.
When seeds drop from the tree, they are carried by the water to a new location. Once the water recedes and the soil is exposed, then and only then, can the seeds sprout.
Under moist conditions, the seedlings are on the clock to grow as fast as they can before the next flood. If a flood comes through and the seedlings are not above the water level, they’ll die off.
Honorable Mention: Mangrove Trees
When you think of mangrove trees you’re probably picturing more of a tropical, saltwater environment. And you would be right most of the time!
Mangrove trees typically grow in saltwater estuaries and near the shoreline. They have a unique filtration system that helps keep most of the salt out of their system.
The reason we mention mangrove trees is that some thrive in partial freshwater. According to the Smithsonian Institute, these are called riverine mangrove forests. They are located on floodplains near the coast and occasionally get flooded with freshwater from rivers.
These types of mangrove trees can thrive in both fresh and saltwater conditions. Sometimes the water is mostly fresh, such as during a river flooding. Once the freshwater recedes, the leftover water can have a high salt content, but the mangroves can withstand the rapid change.
You can learn more about trees that grow near saltwater here.
What Are The Best Water-Loving Trees To Plant In Your Yard?
If your yard is slightly saturated with moisture at some point in the year, you may be better off planting some of the trees mentioned above. Trees that do not typically grow in moist conditions will not be able to survive well in constantly moist soil.
But which tree is the BEST to plant in the yard? Let’s check out our top picks.
1. Red Maple
Red maples are an excellent choice to plant in the yard. They are usually the first tree to turn colors in the fall, turning a brilliant red mixed with orange, yellow, and sometimes purple.
Red maples thrive in partial shade to full sun and can thrive in well-drained soils, even if there is extended flooding.
You can check out your local nursery to pick up a red maple tree. Or, if you prefer to go the online delivery route, try something like DAS farms Red Maple Shade Tree. This is shipped as a live plant and many customers comment on how healthy the tree looks when it arrives.
2. Weeping Willow
Weeping willow trees are iconic water-loving trees with long, drooping branches that sway in the wind.
These trees are a great choice if you have the room to grow them and have a stream or pond on your property. Just like the red maple, you can check your local nursery for a willow tree or order one online like Perfect Plant’s Weeping Willow Live Plant.
That’s A Wrap!
Trees are just as diverse as animals on planet Earth. Some prefer low elevations, others prefer to be thousands of feet above sea level. Some prefer wet conditions, others prefer dry desert conditions. Even the pH of the soil is a factor for a tree.
Several trees prefer to live in freshwater conditions. This typically comes in the form of a swamp or floodplain that sees frequent flooding.
To recap, the most common trees that grow in freshwater include:
- Water tupelo
- Red maple
- Black spruce
- Pumpkin ash
- Swamp tupelo
The two main reasons why trees prefer to live in freshwater are seed dispersal and lower competition. That’s all we’ve got, thanks for reading!
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Burke, M. K., & Chambers, J. L. (2003). Root dynamics in bottomland hardwood forests of the Southeastern United States Coastal Plain. Plant and Soil, 250, 141-153.
Effler, R. S., & Goyer, R. A. (2006, May 01). Baldcypress and water tupelo sapling response to multiple stress agents and reforestation implications for Louisiana swamps. Forest Ecology and Management, 226(1-3), 330-340.
Knight, K. S., Brown, J. P., & Long, R. P. (2013). Factors affecting the survival of ash (Fraxinus spp.) trees infested by emerald ash borer (Agrilus planipennis). Biological Invasions, 15, 371-383.