Know Your Natives – Lizard’s Tail

Lizard’s tail (Saururus cernuus) of the Lizard’s Tail (Saururaceae) Family is the only member of its genus in North America (its sister species occur in Asia) and the only member of the family native to the eastern US.  It is found from Texas to Kansas to Illinois to Wisconsin and thence south and east to the borders, except for several far-northeastern states.  In Arkansas, it is found throughout the state, although perhaps absent from a few Interior Highland counties.  The genus name is derived from the Latin word “saurus,” meaning “lizard,” and the specific epithet “cernuus” means “nodding.”  This common name is based on the appearance of the species’ nodding, tail-like inflorescence.

Lizard’s tail is a perennial, herbaceous plant occurring in wetlands with light shade to partial sun.  Habitats are permanently or periodically flooded; such as shallow ponds, swamps, seeps, springs and shallow slow-moving streams.  Lizard’s tail has shallow, horizontal rhizomes which turn upward every 1 to 2 feet so as to reach the surface to produce new stems.  Fibrous roots grow from junctions of rhizome segments.  Dense colonies may form.

Lizard's Tail - Saururus cernuusPhoto 1:  Horizontal portion of lizard’s tail rhizomes (red arrows) terminate with white new growth.  The tip of new growth will turn upward to produce a new stem.  An existing stem (not shown) grows from the vertical portion of the rhizome (green arrows).

Plants, erect to semi-erect, reaching to 1½ to 3 ½ feet tall and sparingly branched, are largely glabrous.  Slender, rounded to somewhat ridged stems, light green in color, are slightly zig-zagged between leaves.  Alternate leaves have a petiole with a basal sheath which clasps the stem.  This basal sheath continues up the petiole as “wings” which join to form a small point at the base of the upper side of the leaf blade.  Emergent new growth forms at the base of a previous leaf and is initially contained by the “wings.”  Petioles are light green, slightly ridged and about one-third the length of leaf blades.

Lizard's Tail - Saururus cernuusPhoto 2:  New growth emerges from base of leaves resulting in “wings” on the petioles (see arrow).  Female ebony jewelwing damselfly also shown.

Leaves, which are of an elongated, cordate shape and entire, are 4 to 6 inches long and 3 to 4 inches wide.  Lower leaves may have broadly wavy margins.  The upper leaf surface is medium to dark green and slightly shiny while the lower leaf surface is a lighter dull green similar to the stem.  Palmate venation is recessed on the upper surface and raised on the lower surface.  Crushed leaves have a strong citrus smell.

Inflorescences develop from axils of upper leaves in late spring into summer as tiny drooping flower spikes on erect green peduncles.  As the spike grows, flowers mature from base to tip so that a nodding spike in flower has a round tapered shape.  The spike becomes more erect as flowers mature so that those receptive to pollination are held at the highest position.  When the last flowers at the tip mature, the spike is straight and rigid.

Lizard's Tail - Saururus cernuusPhoto 3:  Several flower spikes, of varying maturity, may be found along a stem.

Lizard's Tail - Saururus cernuusPhoto 4:  Flowers receptive to pollination are at the highest position as the spike straightens.  Banded longhorn flower beetle also shown.

Flowers, hundreds per spike on short up-bent pedicels, are very small and densely packed.  Without petals or sepals and with a short pistil, anthers are clearly seen even on the youngest flower spikes.  Flowers have four to eight white filaments as well as white peduncles and pedicels. The superior ovary and short pistil are also white.  Flowers are pleasantly fragrant and, when in thick colonies, may scent the air.  An ovary produces several seeds.  When mature, the small green fruit become wrinkled and gray.  Seeds are brown and smooth.

Lizard's Tail - Saururus cernuusPhoto 5:  Without petals or sepals and with a small pistil, the anthers are conspicuous.

Lizard's Tail - Saururus cernuusPhoto 6:  As flowering progresses up-spike, the spike straightens and becomes rigid.

A garden or wild areas with wetland conditions may be ideal for lizard’s tail.  It may form a colony, but the colony will not extend into drier areas or into permanent deeper water.  The plant’s attractive leaves and inflorescence can provide nice contrasts with other wetland plants; such as, ferns and sedges.

Article and photographs by ANPS member Sid Vogelpohl

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