Lizard's Tail

Saururus cernuus

lizard's tail

Lizard's tail, photographed at Fern Forest Nature Center, Coconut Creek, Broward County, in March 2014.

Lizard's tail? We just don't see it. Water dragon, a less frequently used common name for Saururus cernuus, we get. Plus it's more cool than lizard's tail. But our opinion doesn't really count beyond the confines of this page so we'll go along with the rest of the world and call it lizard's tail.

The inspiration for both names comes from the plant's flower spikes that curl and droop as they bloom and begin to produce dozens of nut-like seeds.

It is a water-loving plant, found on the edges of marshes and swamps throughout most of the eastern United States as far north as New York and southern New England. Its westward limits are Texas and Kansas. It's also found in parts of Canada, including Ontario and Quebec.

It's native to Florida, found in most Florida counties. Range maps exclude Palm Beach, but we've found lizard's tail growing in West Delray Regional Park and Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge. In some places around the country, it's quite common but the institute for Regional Conservation says it's rare in South Florida; both Connecticut and Rhode Island list it as endangered.

The flower spikes are the main identifers, but also look for leaves that are heart- or arrow-shaped, with rounded lobes at the base. The flower spikes are typically 6 to 8 inches long, but can reach a foot.

The plant grows to about 2 feet tall, but some sources say it can be twice that. The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center says the leaves when crushed have a sassafras aroma. Other say the whole plant has a citrus scent to it.

Lizard's tail reproduces two ways — from seed and also from underground stems called rhizomes that send out shoots. These shoots allow it to form large colonies. It's not an important plant in terms providing food for animals — the IRC says birds eat the seeds — but like all aquatic plants, it's underwater parts provide critical habitat for small critters which become food for critters higher up on the chain.

It is cultivated, and sold by a few commercial nurseries in the region. But it requires standing water or at least wet soil, so it isn't practical for most homeowners unless they've got a water garden. It does not tolerate drought. It will grow in moderate shade to full sun.

One of the odder common names for the plant is breast weed. The name doesn't come from how it looks but rather how it's used. In folk medicine, the roots of the plant are roasted and mashed, then made into a poultice and used to treat sore breasts. The leaves are made into a tea also to treat sore breasts as well as sore backs and upset stomachs.

The Seminoles used poultices made from the plant to treat spider bites. The Choctaw applied it to wounds. The Ojibwa used it as a wash to treat rheumatism. The Cherokee also used it in various ways. The Seminoles incorporated it into their religious ceremonies.

It is a member of Saururaceae, the lizard's tail family. It's also spelled lizard's-tail.

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Published by Wild South Florida, PO Box 7241, Delray Beach, FL 33482.

Photographs by David Sedore. Photographs are property of the publishers and may not be used without permission.