February 18 – Tiny Flowers

Today’s Factismal: The water meal plant (Wolffia globosa) has the world’s smallest flowers.

Sometimes, bigger isn’t better. If you’d like a good example of that, then consider the water meal plant, known to botanists as Wolffia globosa. The plant itself is tiny. It weighs about as much as two grains of salt, and it roughly as large as one of the candy sprinkles on an ice cream cone. The flower is smaller yet, being about the size of the period at the end of this sentence.

People call it the “water meal plant” because it looks like little grains of cornmeal floating in water. In its native wetlands of Asia and Europe, the water meal plant is a valuable food source for frogs, ducks, and fish. They are high in protein and some people have suggested cultivating them for human consumption; in parts of the world, water meal is sold for food as “water eggs”. Part of their appeal comes from the fact that they are easy to grow and easy to propagate. A matt of water meal can double in size in just four day! As a result, it is a popular plant with aquarium enthusiasts who frequently use it to add a little color to their fish tanks.

Duckweed (big plants) and water meal (little plants) in a pond (Image courtesy Ohio Pond Management)

Duckweed (big plants) and water meal (little plants) in a pond (Image courtesy Ohio Pond Management)

And that’s the problem with water meal. Though it holds a valuable place in the Everglades food chain, it really doesn’t belong in the food chain of California or Canada or Texas, to name three places where it has become an invasive plant. As with other invasives, water meal can crowd out native plants and reduce the amount of food available to native animals. And, because water meal and its seeds are so small, it is very easy to miss a few hundred when cleaning a local pond to get rid of invasive plants. And missing even one can be enough to start the invasion all over again.

Today, conservationists are attacking the water meal plant with the Mozambique tilapia. Though it is also not native, it has a slow enough life cycle that it can be more easily controlled than the water meal; in addition, the Mozambique tilapia can be a target for sport fishing and turn some of that wasted water meal protein into yummy fried fish!

If you’d like to help spot invasive species in your backyard and elsewhere, then give the Invaders of Texas program a try:
http://www.texasinvasives.org/invaders/

2 thoughts on “February 18 – Tiny Flowers

  1. Isn’t it amazing that something so small can have such a major impact on the environment. I’ve really enjoyed reading your post. *click follow*!

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