Washington State Department of Ecology > Water & shorelines > Freshwater studies > Lake water quality > Aquatic Plant Guide home > Plant-like Algae > Chara

Aquatic Plant Identification Manual for Washington's Freshwater Plants

Plant-like Algae

Species: Chara spp., muskgrass, stonewort, muskwort
Family: Characeae

Although these common lake inhabitants look similar to many underwater plants, they are actually algae. Muskgrasses are green or gray-green colored algae that grow completely submersed in shallow (4 cm) to deep (20 m) water. Individuals can vary greatly in size, ranging from 5 cm to 1 m in length. The main "stem" of muskgrasses bear whorls of branchlets, clustered at regularly spaced joints. When growing in hard water, muskgrasses sometimes become coated with lime, giving them a rough gritty feel. These algae are identifiable by their strong skunk-like or garlic odor, especially evident when crushed.
Plant-like Algae Icon
Leaf: Algae lack true leaves. Six to 16 leaf-like branchlets of equal length grow in whorls around the stem, and are never divided. These branchlets often bear tiny thorn-like projections, which give the plant a rough or prickly appearance when magnified.

Stem: Algae lack true stems. The round, stem-like structure varies from 5 cm to over 1 m in length.

Flower: Algae do not produce flowers. Instead, microscopic one-celled sex organs called oogonia are formed. These tiny organs and patterns in the cases that surround them are used to distinguish between species.

Fruit: Algae do not produce fruits. Tiny spores are produced in fruiting bodies. In some species the fruiting bodies are orange and very conspicuous.

Root: Muskgrasses may be attached to the bottom by root-like structures called holdfasts.

Propagation: Spores carried by water and waterfowl; plant fragments.

Importance of plant: An important food source for waterfowl, particularly ducks. Provides valuable protection for young fish and invertebrates. Muskgrasses grow quickly and occasionally cover the entire bottom of ponds, however its low growth rarely causes it to be considered a nuisance in Washington.

Distribution: Worldwide. More than 30 species in the U.S.

Habitat: Fresh to brackish water, inland and coastal, in both shallow and deep water. Some species found in alkaline lakes and slow-moving streams. Muskgrassses will often grow in deeper water than vascular aquatic plants.

May be confused with: Other plant-like algae: Nitella (Nitella spp.), which have symmetrically forked smooth branchlets, do not have lime coatings, and lack the odor of muskgrasses; and Tolypella spp., which have unsymmetrically forked branches. Slender water-nymph (Najas flexilus) and coontail (Ceratophyllum demersum) are vascular plants which have a different leaf structure and do not produce an odor when crushed.

Photographs: Chara sp. plants, closeup of branchlets
Line Drawings: Chara spp.

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