Parrot Feather – Fact Sheet, Care Guide and Invasive Species Warning!

Are you looking to add style and color to your aquarium? With its delicate bright green appearance and dense, feather-like foliage, parrot feather was once one of the most popular aquarium and pond plants.

Because this versatile plant can live either underwater or on the water’s surface, it’s now present in freshwater lakes and ponds in most continents.

A frame filling photo of parrot feather aquatic plant

Despite its elegant look, a quick search will give you more reasons not to grow parrot feather, rather than to do so.

This plant is considered a highly invasive species, and once planted, has a high potential of escaping and taking over native plants.

For this reason, it’s been banned in several American states, prohibiting citizens from owning or growing the plant. It’s important to check any local restrictions before you consider buying it for your aquarium or water garden.

As many states still give you the opportunity to grow it at home, this article will provide you with a comprehensive overview of parrot feather care if you are considering becoming an owner.

Plant Overview and Statistics

I’ve gathered here some information you might find useful if you’re considering parrot feather as the next addition to your tank.

CharacteristicDetails
Common name(s):Parrot's feather, parrot feather, watermilfoil, Brazilian water-milfoil, thread-of-life, and water-feather.
Scientific Name(s):Myriophyllum aquaticum.
Family:Haloragaceae.
Origin:North, Central, and South America.
Color Form:Blue-green, green.
Maximum Size:5 feet.
Growth Rate:Invasive.
Care Level:Easy.
Water Conditions:Freshwater, 64-86° F, KH 2-15, pH 5.0-7.5.
Lighting:High.
Minimum Tank Size:Not applicable. This plant can live in shallow waters so a minimal amount of water is required.
Supplements:Iron, trace elements, CO2 supplementation.
Placement:Background.
Propagation:Root division/fragmentation.
Tank mates / Compatibility:Compatible with all water plants.

Several different species of Myriophyllum exist, such as Myriophyllum propinquum, Myriophyllum aquaticum, Myriophyllum mattogrossense, and Myriophyllum tuberculatum.

The most popular and widespread of these is Myriophyllum aquaticum, aka parrot feather. It was initially brought from South and Central America in the 1800s to decorate aquariums and gardens. It’s now considered one of the top five most invasive aquatic plants globally.

Because it’s a very difficult to control, it quickly spreads over freshwater lands, replacing and destroying native plants. In the 1900s, parrot feather started its expansion to South Africa, Japan, England, and Australia. It is now present in over 38 American states, in Canada, and on every continent except Antarctica.

If you choose to grow it, it’s recommended that you keep it in a tank, container, or a lined pond. Keep in mind that the greater part of parrot feather care will consist of keeping it under control.

Because it is a subtropical species that enjoys warm temperate climates, it usually dies in winter. But don’t be fooled, it comes back to life in spring with new stems. It’s a perennial plant, and will usually live for at least two years.

A Feathery Appearance: What Does Parrot feather Look Like?

It has a very graceful appearance. Four to six dense, feather-like leaves, which are blue-green in color, usually grow in whorls around the stem.

Very small white flowers can grow at the base of the emergent leaves. Flowers bloom from spring to fall. Because male (staminate) plants are scarce in North America (and are the only sex to flower), you’ll be very lucky to spot parrot feather flowers.

It can grow entirely submerged or above the water, but can also live in both environments at the same time. That is, it can be submerged but have emergent leaves.

When growing underwater, it looks like a thick brown mat, made of roots, leaves, and stems. The emergent stem can grow up to five feet tall and is narrow, less than a quarter-inch wide.

Each leaf can reach half an inch in length and is usually greener, stronger, and larger when growing above the water surface.

Where to Place it in Your Tank

It is extremely versatile and can be left floating or planted in the substrate.

It’s a beautiful addition as a background plant, and its fern-like texture makes a nice contrast with other water plants.

If planted at the bottom of your aquarium, make sure to plan ahead and leave enough space for it to grow—at least two inches around the root.

It’s important to keep in mind that if you own an open aquarium, it will quickly reach the surface and continue its growth far above the water level if left unchecked.

Benefits it Can Bring to an Aquarium

Although it has been accused of spreading too fast and replacing native species, there are benefits to adding parrot feather to your aquarium.

Its dense texture provides your tank’s inhabitants with a hiding place to lay their eggs. By absorbing excess nutrients and oxygenating the water, it also helps control the growth of algae in your aquarium and therefore improves the overall water quality in your tank.

If you decide to let it float on the water’s surface, it will provide your fish and low-light water plants with needed shade.

On the downside, mosquitoes enjoy laying their eggs around this plant. It’s recommended to trim it before it reaches the aquarium’s surface if you don’t want to attract mosquitoes.

Preferred Habitat

It is mostly found in warmer climates and can be an aquatic or a semi-aquatic plant. This plant is often considered a weed and will grow pretty much anywhere if space allows.

Minimum Size Tank Required

In the wild, it’s found in shallow water, in depths ranging from barely moist soil up to six feet deep! It grows in all depths but does grow faster in deeper water.

Because it doesn’t require a large amount of water and can live both under and above water, there is no minimum size requirement when it comes to your tank.

Ideal Water Conditions

It grows best in stagnant or slow-moving waters, such as lakes, ponds, streams, canals, wetlands or backwaters, with water temperatures ranging from 70 to 84 degrees Fahrenheit.

Although it prefers warmer waters, parrot feather can also survive in cold water, going dormant when the surface freezes and growing new stems when the water temperature comes back to a minimum of 44 degrees Fahrenheit.

The plant, however, may not survive extremely harsh winters, as it doesn’t store phosphorus or carbon in its rhizomes.

It thrives under slightly alkaline conditions, within a pH range of 6.8 to 8.0, and can bear a water hardness level of KH 3-8.

It can also survive in slightly salty waters, as long as the salt concentration doesn’t exceed 4 ppt.

Lighting Requirement

Most often, it is planted in the underwater substrate. Although it can live with a moderate amount of direct light, it grows fastest in full sun, so the light needs to penetrate all the way to the bottom of the aquarium.

If your tank can’t be placed near a window, your plant will also thrive under moderate artificial lighting of two to three watts per gallon of water in your tank—from 5000 to 7000K light bulbs.

Other species, such as Myriophyllum tuberculatum, require higher intensity lighting of at least three and a half watts per gallon.

Growth Rate

In North America, it displays vegetative reproduction only. Small parts of it will break off to form new plantlets, allowing it to spread quickly across bodies of water.

Evidence has shown that the growth rate depends heavily on water quality and nutrient levels. Parrot feather requires a very high level of nitrogen in order to reach a growth which can negatively impact the environment.

In ideal conditions, it is prolific and will grow very quickly.

Substrate Requirements

Whether floating or planted, it requires nutrient-rich waters. Although it can live in gravel or even mud, nutrient-rich ground and substrate will allow for optimum growth.

How to Care for Parrot feather

In order to keep the water nutrient levels high, it’s recommended to add iron-rich fertilizer which contains mineral trace elements regularly.

Ideally, the nitrate level should range between 5 and 15 ppm, and phosphate levels between one and two ppm. If your plant turns pale or white, this might be an indication of iron deficiency. Carbon dioxide injection isn’t mandatory, but would certainly boost its growth speed.

This species requires regular pruning by removing dead or damaged stems and trimming it to the height desired. You can use the cuttings for propagation.

If you’re growing parrot feather outdoors, make sure you prune it to the ground or water level, to avoid the dead leaves and stems decomposing and ruining the water quality over winter.

Buying Guide

Before purchasing, check with your local authorities to confirm that you’re legally allowed to own and grow parrot feather.

Some of the restricted states where it’s currently banned include:

  • Alabama
  • Colorado
  • Connecticut
  • Idaho
  • Illinois
  • Indiana
  • Maine
  • Massachusetts
  • Michigan
  • NewHampshire
  • NewYork
  • Vermont
  • Washington
  • Wisconsin
  • Wisconsin

It is generally inexpensive and is sold as live cuttings. Three stems can be purchased online or at your local garden center for less than $4. You can also take a cutting from an existing plant.

Don’t be disappointed if it arrives in your mail in sad shape. This plant is very sturdy and placing it in your aquarium should bring it back to life in no time.

Adding it to Your Aquarium

Parrot feather is easy to introduce to your aquarium. Simply take the following steps:

  1. Place your aquarium close to a window, in direct sunlight. If this isn’t possible, hang a fluorescent light directly over the tank with at least four to eight hours of light on a daily basis.
  2. Trim it if you’re introducing, making sure you remove any dead or unhealthy looking leaves.
  3. While planting parrot feather, make sure that the roots are well covered with a nutrient-rich substrate.
  4. Try and place it near the back of your tank.

If you want your plant to float on the surface, simply follow the steps above to prepare it, then simply place it on the surface.

It will do well, whether fully submerged or partially submerged. Parrot’s care is very easy—the hard work will come when you try to control its growth!

Tank Mates and Compatibility

Wondering who can share the tank with your newly planted parrot feather? Here’s the lowdown.

Fish

Due to the high tannin content of this plant, most fish won’t graze on it, and it will naturally thrive and expand in your aquarium.

In the rare event that your fish appreciate it as a snack, it will generally grow faster than it can be eaten.

In the wild, little information exists on the impact of parrot feather on fish and wildlife.

Plants

Parrot feather gets along with most water plants, however, the love might not be mutual. If left unattended, it will quickly expand and threaten the survival of other water plants.

In order to keep a well-balanced ecosystem, it’s important to trim and prune it regularly.

Reproduction and Propagation

It is a dioecious species, where only the female (pistillate) plants grow in North America. Seeds are therefore not produced and only a vegetative reproduction occurs: this is where roots multiply by division in a process called fragmentation. It can also spread through underground stems.

It can be propagated very easily by cutting the top of an existing parrot feather stem, removing the highest leaves, and replanting it in a nutrient-rich substrate. The new plant will quickly grow roots and branches.

Impact on the Environment

Because cutting the plant allows it to grow further, plantlets often break off and attach themselves to new areas, spreading to new bodies of water. In open water areas, motorboats, animals, and fishing gear often facilitate this process.

Intentional and accidental releases have caused aggressive propagation, heavily impacting our environment and ecosystem.

Parrot feather’s environmental impact includes the following:

  • Dense mats clog ducts and canals, potentially increasing the duration of floods.
  • When overly spread, it reduces the levels of oxygen and light in the water, threatening the fish population.
  • It competes with and displaces native vegetation, such as the coontail, affecting biodiversity and water quality.
  • The dense mats on the water surface can also cause issues for recreational activities. Boats, swimmers, and fishing ropes can become entangled.
  • parrot feather creates stagnant waters, increasing the breeding grounds for mosquitoes.
  • It can significantly change the physical and chemical properties of lakes and streams.

Once established, this invasive species is very difficult to manage, and prevention is key.

Here are a few guidelines to prevent this species from spreading.

  • Learn how to identify parrot feather. This Youtube video is helpful: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lYGGy5tJ01M
  • When boating in an infested area, reduce your speed to avoid breaking off fragments and spreading the species into new bodies of water.
  • Before leaving the site, clean and dry your boat and fishing gear to avoid further propagation.
  • When law permits and allows you to have it planted in your aquarium or water garden, handle with extra care.
  • If you wish to dispose of your aquarium or water plants, don’t dump them in a body of open water. Dispose of them in a closed garbage can instead.

Parrot Feather Removal

If you’ve planted it in your pond outside and it’s now out of control, you may need to take some steps to remove the plant. Here’s how to go about it:

Manual Removal

If you’re trying to eradicate parrot feather from your water garden, it’s recommended that you cut it back at least every six to nine weeks during the growing season to weaken it.

The cut stems should be removed to prevent regrowth.

Herbicides

Herbicides can be used, however, they have their limitations.

  • Because it grows both submerged and emerged, herbicides are difficult to use efficiently. They are most effective on the exposed part of the plant as the submerged parts will never come into direct contact with the chemicals.
  • Herbicides are more efficient when applied to young plants, and should be used
  • Parrot feather leaves and stems contain a waxy cuticle which protects the plant from the poison. A surfactant or wetting agent should be used
  • Herbicides may have an impact on surrounding animals and native plant species as well.

The most successful herbicides are 2,4-D, Triclopyr, Tsunami (diquat based) and Aquathol. Herbicides containing carfentrazone, imazapyr, and imazamox have also shown great results.

Interesting Facts

  • It’s scientific name, Myriophyllum, means “many leaves” in Greek.
  • As well as mosquitoes, some species of beetle love to lay their eggs on the exposed parts of this plant.
  • In the wild, male plants are incredibly rare.
  • If a female is pollinated successfully, it can produce a type of fruit called a schizocarp.
  • Before people realized just how invasive it was, it was cultivated around the world.
  • Not many animals can eat itbecause of the high tannin levels.

Summary

The possibility of adding parrot feather to your aquarium will depend on your location, as many American states and other countries won’t allow you to own or purchase the plant legally.

Parrot feather care is simple, but given the potential ecological threat, precautions should be taken to ensure it’s contained within your tank and cuttings disposed of sensibly.

When used appropriately, it makes a great addition to any aquarium. Its delicate feathery leaves gently float through the waters, hiding shy fish and giving your tank a natural bright green color.

Do you have parrot feather planted in your aquarium? Are you struggling to remove it from your water garden? Please ley us know in the comments section below.

Happy fish keeping!

Wendy Kathryn

Hi, I'm Wendy, the owner and creator of this website, an experienced fish keeper and avid student of the art since 2010. My aim is to help beginners avoid the many possible mistakes when getting started in this wonderful hobby.You can learn more about me here.

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