There are lizard’s tails.

And then, there are Lizard’s Tails.

This story is about an attractive aquatic herb with a very distinctive white flower that grows along the Lake Martin shoreline … not the part of a lizard that sometimes falls off and squiggles in your hand.

Lizard’s Tail has a distinctive spike blossom that readily identifies this plant during the summertime. Hundreds of tiny white flowers make up each spike, giving it the look of a long, thin, white bottle brush that tapers to a blunt point. The spikes are 6 to 8 inches long, and they grow on the highest part of the plant. They can start out straight, but the tip almost always droops down, forming a white arch that stands out among the greens of a shoreline. As the flowers mature, they develop tiny green fruits along the spike, which later turn brown and are said to look like a lizard’s tail.

Heart-shaped or arrow-shaped green leaves grow on stalks on alternate sides of the green stem, which can appear zig-zaggy instead of straight in some plants.

The total height of this plant can approach 4 feet in the wild, though it is usually shorter. 

Lizard’s Tail has shallow rhizomes that spread out and turn upward every 1 to 2 feet to produce new roots, forming colonies. Its small, thin stems grow from the rhizome segments. 

The leaves and roots of this plant give off a scent like citrus or sassafras when crushed.

Lizard’s Tail is the common name for Saururus cernuus, a plant also known as Swamp Lily, Breastweed, Water Dragon and Lizard Tail. The genus name, Saururus, is a combination of two Greek words, sauros, meaning “lizard,” and oura meaning “tail.” Cernuus means “nodding,” a reference to its drooping flowers.

This plant is the only member of its genus native to North America; it’s closest relatives are found in Asia. 

Interestingly, common name Swamp Lily is most often used to identify a still-water cousin of the fast-water Cahaba Lily here in Alabama. And though neither lily looks anything like a Lizard’s Tail, they can be found growing in similar areas. 

This is a plant that lives right along the shore – either in shallow water or wet soil. It can also thrive in marshes and alongside slow-moving streams and creeks.

Lizard’s Tail is native in the eastern United States, from Texas north to Michigan and into southern Ontario, Canada, and east all the way to Florida and the eastern seaboard of America.

Wood ducks and beavers are known to eat Lizard’s Tail, and in one study, beavers were shown to reduce the Lizard’s Tail population by 45 percent.

Lizard’s Tail is a natural medicine used by Native American Chocktaw and Cherokee tribes to treat nursing mothers’ sore breasts or anybody’s back pain. A poultice was made by roasting the roots and mashing them up. The Seminole tribe used this plant to treat rheumatism, body aches and fevers. 

The dried leaves of Lizard’s Tail have been used to make a tea to treat pain in the back, breast and stomach, as well as for use as a sedative. And the boiled mashed roots have been used as a poultice to help flesh wounds heal properly.

If you are a water gardener, Lizard’s Tail is a perennial plant you might want to consider. It thrives in wetland gardens and blooms in full sun or shade. It can live in up to 4 inches of water or in damp soil and is known as a very good spreading ground cover. 

Some information for this article came from The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, Foraging Texas, The University of Florida’s Center for Aquatic and Invasive Plants, naturalmedicinalherbs.net and the Arkansas Native Plant Society.