The Genera
Nymphoides and Villarsia

By David Curtright, Escondido, California
Click images to enlarge


The genera Nymphoides and Villarsia are among the more interesting and decorative groups of plants in the aquatic gardening hobby. Their interesting leaves and lovely flowers make a pleasant addition to any water garden and their size and habits make them suitable for water gardens of all sizes.

Surprisingly perhaps, to the neophyte, these plants are not related to water lilies, as one might infer from their general appearance and from the name Nymphoides. The name Nymphoides means similar to, or in the form of, a Nymphaea (water lily), but implies no direct relationship to that genus. Actually, they are in the family Gentianaceae, which puts them in league with Centaurium, which has representatives in California and other western states; Chironia, native to South Africa and with one aquatic species, C. palustris; Eustoma, or Prairie Gentian; Fauria crista-galli (Deer Cabbage), a moisture loving favorite in the north; Frasera, 15 species of moisture loving plants, mostly native to the Pacific Northwest; Gentiana, a huge genus of familiar plants; and many others, in particular Menyanthes, a favorite in our hobby. Some authors put them into the family Menyanthaceae because of certain structural differences. Early taxonomists used the generic name, Limnanthemum, instead of Nymphoides.

N. cristata

N. indica
 The genera in question, though, are very different from one another in their habits, but quite similar in their structures. In the case of Nymphoides, the basic structure is a rosette of leaves, held on thin petioles which rise from a stoloniferous base. The leaves are held on the surface of the water much like those of water lilies, hence the name Nymphoides. Leaves may be elliptical, chordate, or round. They may be entire (smooth-edged) or they might exhibit varying degrees of scalloping. In all species, reproduction is by viviparous leaves, by seeds, or by runners. In the case of the viviparous leaves, the new plantlets produce plantlets of their own and so on until a dense colony of plants is formed on the surface of the water, often to the point of covering the surface completely. These species also produce numerous white flowers from the same buds under the leaves. This group includes N. indica, N. cristata, N. spongifolia, and others.
Other species of Nymphoides reproduce by runners, which can snake around a pond forever, producing plants at intervals. These species produce flowers from the same nodes that produce the new plants (N. peltata) or at the end of special axilary stems, or peduncles (N. crenata). Flowers in this group are yellow or yellow-orange.

N. peltata

N. crenata
Nymphoides species may be planted along the margins of ponds or streams in about 12" of water, or they may be planted in a pot in open water and allowed to form colonies at the surface. This may be done in up to 20" of water. Other species, on the other hand, prefer to send their runners to the surface. Here they produce a young plant and several flowers, and a continuation of the runner, which can attain several feet of length.
In all of the Nymphoides species, flowers are produced from mid spring through the summer, and frequently into the fall. In some species the petals are fringed with fine hairs along their margins. These include N. crenata and N. indica. Most of the rest have smooth or slightly ruffled petal edges. N. cristata has a small raised area running down the length of the petal, hence the name, cristata, which means 'crested'. I have only seen seeds produced by one species, N. peltata, or the so-called "Water Fringe", a.k.a.., "Floating Heart". The seeds look for all the world like young ticks. They are light brown in color, about 3/16" in diameter, are flattened, and have little hairs protruding from their margins, making them look almost exactly like a tick in need of a meal. They germinate in mud or shallow water after a rest period of some length. They develop quickly into stout, little upright plants just waiting for a flood.

N. cristata

N. indica

N. peltata

Villarsia, on the other hand, is somewhat different. In this case, leaves are chordate to round, and are held on erect petioles. They are more attuned to growing above the water line, as opposed to holding their leaves right on the water. There are 16 species and they are all aquatic or semi-aquatic.

Villarsia species are best used at the margins of ponds or waterfall weirs and stream sides. V. parnassifolia will grow with its root crown well exposed to the air, while V. reniformis will tolerate water up to 8 or 10 inches deep, although it holds its leaves and flowers well above the water. V. violacea will grow in up to 1.5"of water, but is quite at home growing on exposed mud. All of these species hold their leaves nearly erect and produce flowers in clusters of 3 to 12 at the end of long, axillary peduncles.

Unfortunately, Villarsia species are not as forthcoming with flowers as are Nymphoides species. They usually bloom from mid to late spring and then they set seeds and that's it. As a welcome diversion from this pattern, V. violacea blooms through the summer in full sun. In my experience, the flowers of most species are pale to brilliant yellow, about ½", or slightly larger, in diameter, and are carried in clusters of 8-15, or so. Each has 5 petals. The flowers of V. violacea are only about 3/8" in diameter.


As mentioned above, these plants have a number of uses. They can be used in water that is a fraction of an inch deep or water that is nearly 2 feet deep. As long as they are well lit and don't get too much competition from algae or other more vigorous plants, they will do well They prefer rich soil with plenty of food to do their best. We have used them with great success in shallow water along pond margins. One use for the smaller species, especially N. cristata, is as a table-top bowl plant. Another might be in a whiskey barrel. Nymphoides indica, the Giant Snowflake, with its large leaves and showy white flowers, can be planted out with the water lilies.

Maintenance includes removing dead leaves periodically and in thinning the plants to avoid gross overcrowding. They should be fed from time to time to keep them performing all summer.

Winter care is a snap with most of these plants, although there are tender species. N. indica needs to be protected from winter cold, as does the orange-flowered Nymphoides hydrocharioides. N. peltata and the N. crenata group will survive mild winters.


N. spongifolia and another Nymphoides

When Walter Pagels and I were in the Darwin area in April of 2003, we found N. spongifolia, which I found to be of great potential to the hobby. It exhibits a horseshoe shaped leaf that is vividly variegated, somewhat like N. cristata. As the name would imply, the under side of the leaf is spongy. It blooms like N. cristata and mature specimens were nothing short of beautiful.

This is a group of plants that should enjoy more popularity than it does. Perhaps the reason that it does not get the attention that it should is because it is difficult to sell a plant that produces long runners in a tank full of other plants. They tend to get tangled rather quickly. Whatever the reason, enthusiasts should continue to trade these plants because for those who keep them, the water garden is a far cheerier place than for those who do not. Their numerous brightly colored flowers open early in the day and close in the late afternoon, producing an ever-changing display of flowers and glossy, variegated leaves.

Fecundity in Nymphoides

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