Duckweed species are small floating aquatic plants found worldwide and often seen growing in thick, blanket-like mats on still, nutrient-rich fresh and brackish waters. They are monocotyledons belonging to the botanical family Lemnaceae and are classified as higher plants, or macrophytes, although they are often mistaken for algae. The family consists of four genera, Lemna, Spirodela, Wolffia, and Wolffiella, among which about 40 species have been identified so far. All species occasionally produce tiny, almost invisible flowers and seeds, but what triggers flowering is unknown. Many species of duckweed cope with low temperatures by forming a special starchy “survival” frond known as a turion. With cold weather, the turion forms and sinks to the bottom of the pond where it remains dormant until rising temperatures in the spring trigger resumption of normal growth.
Duckweed species are adapted to a wide variety of geographic and climatic zones and can be found in all but waterless deserts and permanently frozen polar regions. Most, however, are found in moderate climates of tropical and temperate zones. Many species can survive temperature extremes, but grow fastest under warm, sunny conditions. They are spread by floods and aquatic birds. Duckweed species have an inherent capability to exploit favorable ecological conditions by growing extremely rapidly. Their wide geographic distribution indicates a high probability of ample genetic diversity and good potential to improve their agronomic characteristics through selective breeding. Native species are almost always available and can be collected and cultivated where water is available, including moderately saline environments.
The natural habitat of duckweed is floating freely on the surface of fresh or brackish water sheltered from wind and wave action by surrounding vegetation. The most favorable circumstance is water with decaying organic material to provide duckweed with a steady supply of growth nutrients and trace elements. A dense cover of duckweed shuts out light and inhibits competing submerged aquatic plants, including algae. Duckweed fronds are not anchored in soil, but float freely on the surface of a body of water. They can be dispersed by fast currents or pushed toward a bank by wind and wave action. If the plants become piled up in deep layers the lowest layer will be cut off from light and will eventually die. Plants pushed from the water onto a bank will also dry out and die. Disruption of the complete cover on the water’s surface permits the growth of algae and other submerged plants that can become dominant and inhibit further growth of a duckweed colony.