Understanding lakeshore ecosystems — Part 3: Natural vegetation

Natural vegetation on the lakeshore enhances fish and wildlife habitat.

Photo by Jim Brueck
Photo by Jim Brueck

Keeping your shoreline healthy is vital to the overall health of the lake. One of the biggest factors in the health of the shoreline is the plants that live on the land along the shoreline, as well as the submerged plants that live near the shoreline.

Plants on the shoreline or submerged in the water close to the shoreline are a problem for most lakeshore property owners. Unfortunately, most property owners want to remove all native vegetation and maintain a nicely manicured lawn, as well as add sand for a beach adjacent to the lake area for swimming and boating. The balance is educating property owners to learn about the vital role these plants play in the overall health of the lake. With the knowledge they gain, they will be able to make better decisions on how many plants to remove and how to still enjoy the recreational benefits of their lake.

Natural vegetation on the lakeshore enhances fish and wildlife habitat. Once established they are low maintenance and add to the beauty of our lakeshores. A major function of vegetation along a lakeshore is to filter pollutants from runoff thus protecting water quality. Native plants accomplish this by utilizing their deep root systems securing soil for filtration and stabilizing soil against erosion.

It is not only the plant life right next to the shoreline, but the plant life further from the shoreline that determines the health of the lake. A lakes ecosystem has plant communities that are divided into three distinct plant zones. Each of these zones plays a critical role in the health of the lake. These zones are:

  • Upland zone. These plants are associated with dry soil, many times on slopes surrounding the lake.
  • Wetland zone. These plants can withstand flooding or consistently wet soils as well as long periods of dryness.
  • Aquatic zone. This area is in the lake and has four subgroups, depending on the plant structure.

There are also four types of aquatic plants that are critical to the lake’s health. All four groups of plants are found in the littoral zone of the lake. The littoral zone is the shallow and warmer part of the lake. This zone allows enough sunlight to penetrate the water to promote good plant growth. Because of the plant growth, there is an abundance of wildlife and fish in this area. The four types of plants in the littoral zone are:

  • Algae, which have no true roots, stems or leaves and range in size from tiny, one-celled organisms to large, multi-celled, plant-like organisms.
  • Submerged plants, which have stems and leaves that grow entirely underwater, although some may also have floating leaves.
  • Floating-leaf plants, which are rooted in the lake bottom, but their leaves and flowers float on the water surface. Water lilies are a well-known example.
  • Emergent plants, which are rooted in the lake bottom, but their leaves and stems extend out of the water. Examples are cattails and bulrushes.

The littoral zone is also the zone that is most affected by shoreline development. To learn more about these four types of aquatic plants, view this PowerPoint presentation available through one of the Susquehanna University websites: Plants and the Littoral Zone.

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