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Extension > Garden > SULIS > Design > Shoreland Landscape Design, Maintenance, and Management to Protect Water Quality > Plant Identification and Selection

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Plant Identification and Selection

The final step in creating a landscape design plan is plant selection. Types of plants used in buffer zones include trees, shrubs, wildflowers, sedges, grasses, and aquatics. For a list of guides to plant identification and specific plant selection, see the references at the end of this section. Plants enable shoreland buffer zones to be effective at: soil stabilization via extensive root systems, absorption of nutrients, filtration of pollutants, oxygen production, stabilization of sediments in the water, reduction of shoreline erosion, and providing wildlife habitat.

When selecting plants for your design, keep in mind that shoreland is a continuum. That is, there is generally a gradual change in water depth, soil moisture and elevation as you move inland from the water's edge. Use the information gathered in the site survey to get a feel for the continuum on your site. Then decide where plants will be placed both in the water and upland. What is the water depth? Will plants be exposed to waves? At what elevations will upland plants be installed? How much moisture is in the soil at different elevations? Do water levels and soil moisture fluctuate during the year? Knowing the answers to these questions will aid in plant selection. Each soil moisture regiment is host to a separate plant community as illustrated below.

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Darlene Charboneau

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An excellent guide to plant communities and plant identification is Wetland Plants and Plant Communities of Minnesota and Wisconsin published by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. One key to a successful buffer zone planting is to use as many different species as is practical. This will promote the most biodiversity of insects, birds and other species visiting your buffer. Also, using a wide variety of species will insure that sufficient numbers of plants will survive to prevent the need for costly and time intensive replanting.

The first criteria in plant selection should always be suitability to the site. Choose plants that will thrive in a particular location's soil moisture content and sun/shade regime. Plants not properly suited to a location will not fulfill their function and will always require additional maintenance. The second criteria for plant selection should be function. For most functions listed above, native plants will be the best choice. Generally, native plants develop extensive root systems, will be best suited to a location's environment, will require less maintenance, and provide more wildlife benefits. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources encourages using only native plants for vegetative buffers and restorations. For example, good native plant selections for shoreline protection from wave action include:

  • Water lilies
  • Bulrushes
  • Pickerelweed
  • Arrowhead
  • Water plantain
  • Sedges
  • Sweet flag
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Carrol Henderson
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Darlene Charboneau

For more information on plant selection by function, refer to the plant list and Resources for Additional Information at the end of this section. The Minnesota DNR has a helpful Web site entitled "Benefits of Growing Native Plants" at:

The third criteria for plant selection is for plants that do no harm. That is, do not choose plants that have the potential to become invasive and crowd out beneficial native plants. The Minnesota DNR's CD, Restore Your Shore, has more detailed information on plants that should not be used. See the reference list at the end of this section or call the Minnesota DNR's exotic species office at (651) 297-1464.

Three important invasive plant species to watch for are:

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MN DNR photo
Eurasian Watermilfoil
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Wis DNR photo
Purple Loosestrife
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Darlene Charboneau
Reed Canary Grass

Eurasian Watermilfoil is a submerged aquatic plant. Purple Loosestrife grows in wet soils and shallow water. Reed canary grass is found in upland areas, lakeshores and wetlands. For extensive control methods of reed canary grass see Native Vegetation in Restored and Created Wetlands listed in reference section. All three species are aggressive and can crowd out other species to form monocultures or areas of only one species. This type of growth pattern reduces the abundance and diversity of native plants necessary for fish and other wildlife habitat. For additional information on the identification and control of invasive species, call your local DNR office or the exotic species office at (651) 297-1464, visit the Minnesota DNR Web site, or check out the "Lakescaping For Wildlife and Water Quality" book from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

In Minnesota, removing, collecting, and/or transplanting aquatic vegetation below the ordinary high water mark of public waters requires a permit. To determine if a permit is required for your project, call your Regional DNR Fisheries office or 1-888-646-6367.

Suitable Plants for Specific Types of Locations

The species identified below are distributed throughout the state of Minnesota. When only a genus is listed, use a local plant guide to choose species distributed in a particular part of the state. These plants are organized by general life form and should be matched to specific soil type and shoreland zone. Good publications to help determine native plant distribution within the state are Minnesota's St. Croix River Valley and Anoka Sandplain: A Guide to Native Habitats, Minnesota's Native Vegetation: A Key to Natural Communities and Minnesota's Scientific and Natural Areas. Ordering information can be found at

Plants indicated by an * are additional plants recommended by the Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources in Native Vegetation In Restored And Created Wetlands. See reference section on how to purchase a copy of this publication.

Water's Edge Subject to Erosion & Wave Action
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Not all rip-rap is conducive to planting; it depends on the size, density, and age of the rock. In some cases, rip-rap can be seeded effectively with a mixture of grasses and forbs (blooming plants). For cover within the first year, seed with early successional species such as black-eyed Susan.

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Occasional Flooding and Fluctuating Water Levels
Transitional & Shallow Water Zones

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Steep Slopes & Rapid Stabilization
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Sandy Soil
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Ridges Near Shore Formed By Ice: Typically Higher and Drier Than Surrounding Area With Some Seasonal Movement
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Invasive Exotic Plants

Exotic plants are a concern due to their ability to create a monoculture, or single species dominance, crowding out beneficial native plants and becoming a nuisance to recreation. In properly functioning native aquatic plant communities, plant growth is generally controlled by predators, herbivores, parasites, and disease. As a plant species population increases, so does the population of its natural control agents. The introduction of an exotic species can disrupt this balance. The introduced species may enjoy the benefit of not having any control agent present, enabling it to dominate the aquatic system.

With the popularity of water gardens and backyard ponds, many aquatic species are available for purchase. The following exotic species are prohibited in Minnesota. It is illegal to buy, sell, possess, or introduce these plants into Minnesota waters.

Butomus umbellatus flowering rush
Crassula helmsii Australian stonecrop
Hydrocharis morsus-ranae European frog-bit
Hydrilla verticillata hydrilla
Hygrophila polysperma Indian swampweed
Lagarosiphon major African oxygen weed
Lythrum salicaria all cultivars of purple loosestrife
Lythrum virgatum purple loosestrife
Myriophyllum spicatum Eurasian water-milfoil
Potamogeton crispus curly pondweed
Salvinia molesta aquarium watermoss or giant salvinia
Stratiotes aloides water aloe or water soldiers
Trapa natans water chestnut

The following are additional aquatic species on the federal noxious weed list. These plants are also prohibited.

Azolla pinnata mosquito fern or water velvet
Eichornia azurea anchored or rooted water hyacinth
Ipomoea aquatica water spinach or swamp morning glory
Limnophila sessiliflora ambulia
Melaleuca quinquenervia broadleaf paper bark tree
Monochoria hastata  
Monochoria vaginalis  
Ottelia alismoides  
Sagittaria sagittifolia arrowhead (not our native arrowhead)
Salvinia auriculata giant salvinia
Salvinia biloba giant salvinia
Salvinia herzogii giant salvinia
Sparganium erectum exotic bur-reed
The following exotic aquatic species are regulated but not prohibited. They may be purchased and planted in aquariums, water gardens or constructed ponds providing there is no connection to natural "protected" waters.

Cabomba caroliniana Carolina fanwort
Myriophyllum aquaticum Parrot's feather
Non-native water lilies  

Two exotic plants that are not include on the prohibited or regulated lists but have shown some invasive characteristics. These should not be planted near natural bodies of water.

Iris pseudacorus yellow iris
Pink water lilies  

Resources For Additional Information
On Plant Selection and Identification

Wisconsin Lakes Partnership

  • Through The Looking Glass is a beautifully written and extensively illustrated field guide to aquatic plants. In addition to plant identification, there are discussions on plant communities, the relationships between animals and aquatic plants, and the value of aquatic plants. Available at:
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
  • Wetland Plants and Plant Communities of Minnesota and Wisconsin provides a thorough discussion of plant communities and shows examples of each type. It is illustrated with beautiful photographs and field characteristics of plants to aid in their identification. Available at: 651-290-5200. Can be viewed on-line at:
Minnesota Department of Natural Resources
  • Lakescaping for Wildlife and Water Quality is a "must have" manual for shoreline restoration from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. Topics include: buffer zones, lake ecosystems, designing lakeshore landscapes, site preparation, plant installation, and shoreline stabilization. The book is available from Minnesota's Bookstore (1-800-657-3757) , the University of Minnesota bookstores, and most private bookstores.
  • Restore Your Shore CD-ROM is a companion to the Lakescaping for Wildlife and Water Quality book. Step-by-step project examples illustrate solutions to shoreland problems and demonstrate restoration techniques. This helpful guide includes worksheets, a plant selection guide with over 400 color photos, and information on invasive exotic species. Available from Minnesota's Bookstore (1-800-657-3757) Watch for "Restore Your Shore" to be added to the DNR Web site.
  • Benefits of growing native plants site has information on growing native plants, choosing plants, contacts, suppliers, references, and exotic species at:
  • A Guide to Aquatic Plants is an abbreviated guide of the most common aquatic plants - suitable to take into the field. It includes a pocket size field guide to aquatic exotic plants and animals and a flowchart to help determine the appropriate control options for unwanted plants. Available at:
  • Good publications to help determine native plant distribution within the state are Minnesota's St. Croix River Valley and Anoka Sandplain: A Guide to Native Habitats and Minnesota's Scientific and Natural Areas. Ordering information can be found at
  • Going Native restoration booklet is available as a PDF file at
  • Biomes of Minnesota Web site has good information on the basic vegetation types originally found in Minnesota at:
Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources
  • Native Vegetation in Restored and Created Wetlands is an extensive manual for wetland restoration. Much of the material is also applicable for shoreline restoration. Topics include: site analysis, making a planting plan, general plant selection and selection for problem areas such as fluctuating water levels, planting strategies, and follow-up management. Available at Minnesota's Bookstore:
University of Minnesota Extension Minnesota Native Plant Society
  • Find information on how to select native plant sources plus many links to other native plant sites and the Minnesota Plant Press at:
Center For Urban Ecology and Sustainability (CUES) Friends of Bassett Creek Web site is an excellent source of information for rain gardens including plant selection and how-to instructions at:

The Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center
Web site with a detailed listing of many plant and animal families including aquatic and vascular plants. Includes: identification and growth characteristics, native range of species, and color photos.

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