Pistia stratiotes
Pistia stratiotes
(water lettuce)
Native Transplant
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Pistia stratiotes L.

Common name: water lettuce

Synonyms and Other Names: water-lettuce, water cabbage

Taxonomy: available through www.itis.govITIS logo


Stem/Roots: Pistia stratiotes is a free-floating, herbaceous monocot with a rosette of gray-green leaves, resembling a head of lettuce (thus the common name), occurring as a single plant or connected to others by stolons (Dressler et al. 1987; Langeland and Burks 1998). Roots numerous and feathery.

Leaves: Leaves are ovate to obovate, up to 15 cm in length, without a leaf stalk, spongy near the leaf base, densely pubescent, with deeply furrowed parallel veins and wavy leaf margins (Godfrey and Wooten 1981; Dressler et al. 1987; Langeland and Burks 1998).

Flowers: Flowers inconspicuous, perfect, clustered in leaf axils with a single female flower and multiple male flowers (Langeland and Burks 1998).

Fruit/Seeds: Produces abundant seeds with high percentage of seed viability (Dray and Center 1989a, 1989b).

Look-a-likes: none

Size: Rosette generally 6 to 30 cm in diameter (Godfrey and Wooten 1981)

Native Range: The species is pantropical, occurring on all continents except Antarctica (Adebayo et al. 2011). The center of origin for P. stratiotes is unknown. Fossil records for this species can be found around the globe (Stoddard 1989). Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics depict the plant and Greek botanists Dioscorides and Theophrastus described the plant floating on the Nile River more than 2,000 years ago, indicating African origin (Stoddard 1989). Pistia stratiotes in Brazil and Argentina host a large number of co-evolved specialist insect herbivores suggesting a South American origin (Center et al. 2002). In North America, both John and William Bartram described P. stratiotes as early as 1765 and 1773, respectively, along the St. Johns River in Florida, up to 300 river km upstream of the ocean inlet where any ballast material would likely have been deposited from trans-oceanic ships (Bartram and Harper 1942; Bartram and Harper 1943). Since plants were found so far upstream from known seaports, a rationale for Florida nativity has been suggested (Evans 2013). Late Pleistocene/early Holocene fossil records for this species in Florida lend support for this contention (Stoddard 1989; Evans 2013).

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Puerto Rico &
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Interactive maps: Point Distribution Maps

Nonindigenous Occurrences:
Distribution by states' drainage basins and/or counties:
  • Alabama - Lower Conecuh (University of Alabama Biodiversity and Systematics 2007), Lower Coosa, and Upper Alabama (Center for Invasive Species and Ecosystem Health 2015) drainages
  • California - Laguna-San Diego Coastal, Salton Sea, Santa Ana (Regents of the University of California 2015), Lower Colorado (Potter and Dean 2015), Lower Sacramento (Fred Hrusa, CDFA, pers. comm.), Central California Coastal, Northern California Coastal, Ventura-San Gabriel Coastal (Calflora 2015), and San Joaquin (Consortium of California Herbaria 2014) drainages
  • Colorado - Little Turkey Creek in Upper Arkansas drainage (University of Colorado Museum of Natural History 2007)
  • Connecticut - Housatonic, Lower Connecticut, Shetucket (University of Connecticut 2011), and Quinnipiac (Yale University Peabody Museum 2009) drainages
  • Delaware - private pond in Lewes in Broadkill-Smyrna drainage (Aquatic Resources Education Center 1995)
  • Florida - Econfina-Steinhatchee (University of Alabama Biodiversity and Systematics 2007), Ochlockonee (Anderson 2001), and Florida Panhandle Coastal (Center for Invasive Species and Ecosystem Health 2015) drainages, and Baker County (Aurand 1982)
  • Hawaii - Kauai, Molokai (Mehrhoff 1996), Maui (Wagner et al. 2005), and Oahu (Naturalis Biodiversity Center 2013) islands
  • Idaho - Bruneau River in Middle Snake-Boise drainage (Thomas Woolf, IDA, pers. comm.)
  • Illinois - Chicago (Center for Invasive Species and Ecosystem Health 2015), Des Plaines (Adam et al. 2001), Little Wabash (University of Connecticut 2011), and Upper Fox (Adam et al. 2004) drainages
  • Kansas - Independence-Sugar (Jason Goeckler, KDWP, pers. comm.), Lower Cottonwood (Freeman 2000), and Middle Neosho (University of Kansas Biodiversity Institute 2008) drainages
  • Louisiana - Lake Pontchartrain (Thomas and Allen 1993), Atchafalaya-Vermillion (University of Alabama Biodiversity and Systematics 2007), Big Cypress-Sulphur (Louisiana State University Herbarium 2010), Central Louisiana Coastal (Hodgson 2015), Calcasieu-Mermentau (Valentine 1976), and Lake Maurepas (Thomas M. Pullen Herbarium 2005) drainages, and Lincoln, Ouachita, and St. Tammany Parishes (Thomas and Allen 1993)
  • Maryland - Norman Creek, near the Sunset Harbor Marina, off of Middle River in Gunpowder-Patapsco drainage (John Becker, Sunset Harbor Marina, pers. comm.), and Mattawoman Creek, across from Smallwood State Park marina in Lower Potomac drainage (Nancy B. Rybicki, USGS, pers. comm.)
  • Michigan - Detroit, Huron, Lake Erie, Ottawa-Stony, and Upper Grand (Michigan State University 2015) drainages
  • Minnesota - Buffalo-Whitewater, Twin Cities (Center for Invasive Species and Ecosystem Health 2015), and Rush-Vermillion (Balgie et al. 2010) drainages
  • Mississippi - Lower Big Black, Middle Pearl-Strong (Mississippi Museum of Natural Science 2016), Lower Yazoo (Sam Faulkner, Delta State Univ., pers. comm.), Mississippi Coastal (Center for Invasive Species and Ecosystem Health 2015), and Tibbee (Madsen 2010) drainages
  • Missouri - LaBarque Creek in Meramec drainage (Missouri Botanical Garden 2007)
  • New York - Bull and Ellicott Creeks in Niagara drainage (Mike Goehle, USFWS, pers. comm.), and Westbury Pond in Southern Long Island drainage (Conover 2007)
  • North Carolina - Burnt Mill Creek pond in the Ann McCrary Park section in Northeast Cape Fear drainage (Diana Rashash, NC Coop. Ext. Service, NCSU, pers. comm.)
  • Ohio - Metzger Marsh of western Lake Erie in Cedar-Portage drainage (Wilcox and Whillans 1999), and Olentangy River of Fawcett in Upper Scioto drainage (University of Connecticut 2011)
  • Rhode Island - James V. Turner Reservoir of East Providence in Narragansett drainage, and Chipuxet River at Taylors Landing of West Kingston in Pawcatuck-Wood drainage (Lisa Gould, RI Natural History Survey, pers. comm.)
  • South Carolina - Crowfield Lake of Goose Creek in Cooper drainage (South Carolina Department of Natural Resources 2007), and Waccamaw River in Waccamaw drainage (Nelson 1993)
  • Texas - Big Cypress-Sulphur, Nueces, Southwestern Texas Coastal (Helton and Hartmann 1996), Devils, Lower Brazos (Texas A&M University Bioinformatics Working Group 2007), Galveston Bay-Sabine Lake (Hartmann 1994), Guadalupe (Lemke 1989), Lower Colorado, San Jacinto (Grodowitz et al. 1992), Lower Trinity, Neches (Texas Invasive Plant and Pest Council 2015), Sabine (Rhandy Helton, TPWD, pers. comm.), San Antonio (New York Botanical Garden 2015), and Upper Trinity (Diggs et al. 1999) drainages, and Val Verde County (Texas A&M University Bioinformatics Working Group 2007)
  • Wisconsin - Buffalo-Whitewater (Center for Invasive Species and Ecosystem Health 2015), Castle Rock (WI DNR 2010), La Crosse-Pine (Roe 2015), and Upper Rock (Susan Graham, WI DNR, pers. comm.) drainages

Ecology: Pistia stratiotes is a free-floating, fast growing, obligate aquatic that can form vast, dense floating mats, covering the entire water surface of lakes and slow moving rivers (Langeland and Burks 1998). It is the sole species of this genus. In tropical and subtopical climates it is a perennial. In temperate regions the plant behaves as an annual, returning after the winter months from submersed seeds. This species does not tolerate freezing temperatures, although its seeds can survive submerged in water that is 4°C for at least 2 months (Parsons and Cuthbertson 2001). Pistia stratiotes has a low saline tolerance; plants cannot survive in waters with more than 2.5 ppt salinity (Sculthorpe 1967; Haller et al. 1974).

Pistia stratiotes reproduces rapidly by vegetative fragmentation from offshoots on short, brittle stolons. Seed production is also considered a major method of reproduction and dispersal (Dray and Center 1989a, 1989b). Plants can be solitary rosettes, or may have more than a dozen stolon-connected ramets or daughter plants.  Standing crop may be as high as 2 kg/m2 at the peak of the growing season (Dray and Center 1992). Although vegetative reproduction is thought to be the primary means of propagation, seed crop has been reported to be in excess of 700 seeds/m2 in a stand at a south Florida location, with greater than 80% seed viability (Dray and Center 1989a, 1989b).

Means of Introduction: The origin of Pistia stratiotes is contentious. Some argue the species is native to North America due to fossil evidence (Evans 2013), while others agree it was dispersed by transcontinental bird migrations (Stoddard 1989) or by dry ballast during early European colonization of North America (Stuckey and Les 1984; Schmitz et al. 1993; Dray and Center 2002).  

Pistia stratiotes was sold through aquarium and pond supply dealers, both online and in retail garden centers (Rixon et al. 2005); it is still offered for sale online and in several states (Rebecca Howard, USGS, pers. comm.). New introductions are probably the result of improper disposal of ornamental pond plants or waters, or when ponds adjacent to local water bodies overflow (Adebayo et al. 2011).

Status: Established in southern states (Alabama, Arizona, California, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, Texas) where plants may overwinter and also germinate from seed (Dray and Center 1989). Plants north of the Gulf states (Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Kansas, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Rhode Island, South Carolina, and Wisconsin) likely do not overwinter, and are either extirpated, eradicated, or survive by seed production; the exception being Idaho where populations have established in a hot spring-fed river (Tom Woolf, ID Dept. of Ag., pers.comm.).

Impact of Introduction: Dense populations of P. stratiotes can clog waterways and make fishing, swimming and boating difficult (Howard and Harley 1998). Thick colonies of water-lettuce block the air-water interface which reduces the amount of dissolved oxygen in the water making it less suitable habitat for fish species (Attionu 1976, Šajna et al. 2007, Sridhar and Sharma 1986). These dense mats can also block animal access to the water and may crowd or shade out native plants upon which other organisms depend for food or shelter (Sculthorpe 1967). 

Larvae and pupae of the mosquito genera Culex and Mansonia, found in the southeastern U.S., attach themselves to the root system of P. stratiotes (Lounibos and Escher 1985; Center et al. 2002). These mosquitoes are important vectors of St. Louis Encephalitis (Lounibos and Escher 1985; Petr 2000).

Pistia stratiotes has the fiber content, carbohydrate, and crude protein levels that are comparable with quality forages (Parsons and Cuthbertson 2001). Research has been conducted to utilize this species for biofuels and water remediation (Mishima et al. 2008; Lu et al. 2010).

References: (click for full references)

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Author: Thayer, D.D., I.A. Pfingsten, V. Howard, and J. Li.

Revision Date: 6/24/2016

Citation Information:
Thayer, D.D., I.A. Pfingsten, V. Howard, and J. Li., 2018, Pistia stratiotes L.: U.S. Geological Survey, Nonindigenous Aquatic Species Database, Gainesville, FL, https://nas.er.usgs.gov/queries/FactSheet.aspx?speciesID=1099, Revision Date: 6/24/2016, Access Date: 2/23/2018

This information is preliminary or provisional and is subject to revision. It is being provided to meet the need for timely best science. The information has not received final approval by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and is provided on the condition that neither the USGS nor the U.S. Government shall be held liable for any damages resulting from the authorized or unauthorized use of the information.

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Citation information: U.S. Geological Survey. [2018]. Nonindigenous Aquatic Species Database. Gainesville, Florida. Accessed [2/23/2018].

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