Floral Fact: Bass Magnet
American water-willow provides habitat and spawning grounds for fish
By Jason Singhurst
Over the past dozen years, I have enjoyed the opportunity to get to know water-willow while fly-fishing Central Texas streams. American water-willow (Justicia americana), a member of the acanthus family in Texas, is one of the most amazing aquatic wildflowers. The name refers to its linear leaves, shaped like willow leaves.
Water-willow, found throughout the central third of Texas, forms large colonies or mats that ribbon the shorelines of streams, lakes and ponds.
There are two ecological forms of water-willow. The first is an emergent aquatic plant that lines clay, sand and fine sediment stream banks on the flowing edges and shallow back coves of ponds and lakes. The creeping rhizomes of the bank-lined form provide spawning grounds for many fish species. Additionally, the floating mats provide habitat for many aquatic invertebrates. The second form is a submerged aquatic plant that attaches its rhizomes to fine sediments and gravels, holding fast to the center of stream beds, just above or below a riffle up to four feet deep. The submerged majestic form waves with water currents and provides habitat for many swift-water fish species.
Water-willow blooms primarily from May to October in full sun. It grows in water and moist soils, and is often planted in ponds and water gardens. Water-willow beds buffer pond, lake and stream banks from erosion. The beds also trap fine sediments and floating debris, which foster nursery habitat for fish.
Water-willow can reach a height of two feet above the surface of the water. Its white or light violet flowers with purple spots in the throat resemble orchids. The showy anthers are unusual because they are bright purplish-red instead of the typical yellow color of most anthers.
Texans can easily observe water-willow in many Central Texas and northern Texas state parks and state natural areas, including Blanco, Dinosaur Valley, Fort Parker, Garner, Guadalupe River, Hill Country, Inks Lake, Lake Mineral Wells, Lost Maples, Pedernales Falls and South Llano River.
Those who fish in streams quickly learn how important water-willow is for harboring juvenile bass and sunfish. Adult predator fish such as the Guadalupe bass, largemouth bass, spotted bass, warmouth, bluegill, Rio Grande cichlid and sunfish lie within close proximity to water-willow stands, waiting to ambush smaller fish that nestle among the leaves and rhizomes.
Using polarized sunglasses or snorkeling gear, you can float or wade close to water-willow mats and peer into the floating wildlife world to observe many fish species, crayfish, damselflies and hellgrammites. Anglers quickly learn how to sight-cast to the edges of water-willow to hook up with one of Texas’ fighting freshwater fish species. Fishermen often refer to the water-willow-lined banks as bass magnets.
So when you’re exploring Texas waters in your boat, canoe or kayak or even while wading this summer, ease up to the floating mats of water-willow and check out the gorgeous flowers as well as the fauna that utilize this astonishing aquatic wildflower.