Ceratophyllum demersum (Common Coontail)

Plant Info
Also known as: Coon's-tail, Hornwort
Family:Ceratophyllaceae (Hornwort)
Life cycle:perennial
Habitat:part shade, shade, sun; shallow to 18-ft deep, fresh to slightly brackish water; ponds, lakes, slow-moving streams, ditches, marshes
Bloom season:June - September
Plant height:6 inches to 10 feet
Wetland Indicator Status:GP: OBL MW: OBL NCNE: OBL
MN county distribution (click map to enlarge):Minnesota county distribution map
National distribution (click map to enlarge):National distribution map

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Detailed Information

Flower: Flower shape: indistinct

[photo of male flowers] Separate male and female flowers on the same plant (monoecious). Flowers are few, inconspicuous, alternating with leaves at the leaf nodes, about 2 mm long, stalkless, the males with pink to red stamens, the females with a single, yellowish, spine-like style.

Leaves and stems: Leaf attachment: whorl Leaf type: lobed Leaf type: simple

[photo of leaves, forked once] Plants are entirely submersed. Leaves are whorled all along the stem with 6 to 12 leaves in a whorl, the whorls ½ to 2+ inches in diameter. Leaves are firm, mostly forked once or twice (rarely 3 times) with very narrow segments that have a few to several sharp teeth along the edge. The leaf base is stalkless and not inflated.

[photo of compact whorls at the stem tip] Whorls at stem and branch tips are often more crowded and compact than farther down the stem.

[photo of branch and stem] Stems are light green to reddish, brittle and easily break apart, smooth and much branched, the branches ascending to spreading. Plants have no roots and may be free floating but are more often anchored in the substrate by whitish modified leaves. Turions (winter buds) are formed later in the season, drop off the parent plant and form new shoots the next spring.

Fruit: Fruit type: capsule/pod

[photo of fruit] Fruit is an oval, slightly flattened seed with 3 spines, 2 at the base and one at the tip. Rarely the spines at the base are absent.

[spines can be up to 14 mm long) Fruit is dark green to reddish brown at maturity, 3.5 to 6 mm long, excluding the spines. Spines are straight to curved, the basal spines .1 to 12 mm (to ~½ inch) long, the terminal spine .5 to 14 mm long.


Common Coontail is one of the most common aquatic plants in the world. Native to North America, it now has a global distribution primarily through the aquarium and pond trade. It produces very little seed and spreads mostly vegetatively, from stem fragments and turions. It can form large, dense mats in favorable conditions; it's been reported to reach lengths of 10 meters (~33 feet) in New Zealand, where it is invasive. In Minnesota, it's likely in a lake or pond near you, wherever you are.

Ceratophyllum species are recognized by forked leaves that are whorled all along the stem with 5 to 12 leaves in a whorl, flowers at the leaf nodes, fruit that have a spine at the tip and usually spines at the base and/or along the edges; plants lack roots and are completely submersed, commonly anchored in the substrate by modified leaves. C. demersum has 6 or more leaves in a whorl, leaves are fairly firm, visibly toothed, and forked only once or twice (rarely 3 times); fruit has a pair of basal spines and none along the edges. It most closely resembles C. echinatum (Spiny Coontail), which is much less common, has 5 or more leaves in a whorl, most leaves are forked 3 or 4 times and have few if any teeth, the leaf segments are more thread-like and limp, and fruit has spines along the edges as well as the tip and base.

The overall form of Ceratophyllum is like some other aquatic species, notably Myriophyllum (Water Milfoil), all but one of which have leaves whorled in 4s, the leaves compound with a central stalk and multiple spreading leaflets, and most with an emersed terminal spike of flowers and fruits.

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More photos

Photos by Peter M. Dziuk taken at various locations across Minnesota.


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