Duckweed for dinner?

“The Telegraph” recently carried an interesting report by Anne Gulland about duckweed becoming a new superfood (June 13, 2019;

The nutritional value of various species of duckweed (Lemnaceae) has long been known. However, what is new is an initiative, reported on by “The Telegraph”, to apply to the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) to have Lemnaceae classified as a “novel food”. The application is to be lodged shortly by researchers from Wageningen University in The Netherlands.

This is great news: Duckweeds have excellent nutritional benefits, and their protein content especially makes them of interest for human consumption. Indeed, Lemnaceae are routinely being consumed as a healthy vegetable and/or food ingredient in major parts of the world (but not in the EU). I fondly remember the pizza with a sprinkling of fresh Lemna gibba which I enjoyed on numerous occasions. L. gibba, with the pronounced air-pockets in its fronds, gives a lovely popping sensation in the mouth, a little bit like an Aero-bar, but healthier.

If the application to the EFSA is successful, the culturing of, trade in, and use of Lemnaceae biomass in Europe will be much invigorated. The culture of Lemnaceae for human consumption will, however, need to be carefully considered to avoid the public being exposed to water-borne diseases and/or contaminants. Thus, the duckweed from a local drainage ditch is probably not a recommended vegetable! Conversely, the work by the EPA-funded Newtrients team at UCC is of major interest as it pioneers growth of Lemna minor on food-grade wastewater, i.e. the clean wastewater left after the production of cheese, yoghurt, milk-powder and other dairy products. Thus, a vision arises of the integrated, sustainable production of dairy produce and vegetables.

Research projects participating in Culture Night

Friday 21 September was Culture Night in Cork, and many venues opened their doors for the evening to show their activities.

The School of Biological, Earth and Environmental Sciences (BEES) in UCC was also open. Some 450 visitors were able to get close to hedgehogs, shark jaws, lava, amazing plants and fossils. Many students explained the research project they are working on.

The display of the AQUASUS project in the glass houses explained how duckweed can be used to treat wastewater from fish farms, after which it can be used as animal feed.

Explaining the circular system of purifying wastewater using duckweed

Indoors the project on the Impacts of Microplastics in Irish Freshwater (IMP) explained the problem of small pieces of plastic. Many people know about plastic in our oceans, but it causes problems in our rivers as well.

Display of the IMP project on the Impacts of Microplastics in Irish Freshwater

Minister visits School of BEES

On Monday 3 September minister John Halligan T.D., Minister of State for Training, Skills, Innovation, Research and Development, visited the School of BEES, UCC. We were delighted to show him details of our research for the AQUASUS project. AQUASUS looks at the natural ability of duckweed and algae to thrive in and purify polluted water, producing both clean water for fish farms and a supply of animal feed, as duckweed and algae are edible and high in protein.

The project is funded by European Maritime Fisheries Fund (EMFF), administered by Bord Iascaigh Mhara (BIM) on behalf of the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine.

Prof. Marcel Jansen in discussion with Minister John Halligan T.D. during his visit to UCC

Flying duck(weed)s

In the most recent issue of the Duckweed Forum, Marcel Jansen, with co-workers Neil Coughlan, Simona Paolacci, Ronan Bonfield, and Tom Kelly summarised some of their recent work on duckweed dispersal (ISCDRA Duckweed Forum issue #17, 2017-04). The paper “Flying duck(weed)s” can be downloaded as part of this issue of Duckweed Forum from

Duckweed Forum is a very attractive bulletin, published by ISCDRA. The “International Steering Committee on Duckweed Research and Applications” (ISCDRA) is an organisation of duckweed researchers and users, and its aim is to strengthen and synergistically connect duckweed academic research with the application communities, and to educate and increase public awareness about the importance and potential of duckweeds for a more sustainable future. As part of its activities, ISCDRA regulates the international registration of duckweed clones, and publishes the “Duckweed Forum”.

For details about ISCDRA see

a mallard covered in duckweed (Lemna)
Figure1: A male mallard duck (Anas platyrhynchos), which has just left a Lemna-covered pond, takes some “hitch-hiking” duckweed across land on a foraging trip (image © Roy Battell).


Marked differences in physiological and morphological traits have been found between different species of Lemnaceae, and between different clones of species. Traits like relative growth rates, salt tolerance, and starch content can vary a lot. This makes different clones and/or species more suitable for some applications than others. This also triggers the question, how to prevent the mixing of “undesirable” species or clones with selected Lemnaceae when these are grown under outdoor conditions for applications such water remediation. Perhaps more fundamentally it triggers the question, how do duckweeds disperse?


In the case of Lemnaceae, it has been argued that rapid drying out of fronds will limit the distance of dispersal, and that the frequency of transport will be low. However, the reality appears different. Neil Coughlan developed a simple system to quantify dispersal of L. minor. Quite surprisingly, Neil observed a total of 67 separate dispersal events (transfer of at least one frond) over a period of 20 weeks, and across 6 replicate stake and bowl structures. In total 156 colonies comprising 317 fronds were found to be transferred to receiving bowls in a relatively short period (full details see Coughlan et al., 2017), and this was attributed to birds. The question remains, however, over what distances Lemnaceae can be dispersed, a question that focusses heavily on desiccation tolerance of the plants.

Dessication tolerance

Lemna minuta taken out of the aquatic medium was found to have lost viability after just 90 minutes at a Relative Humidity (RH) of 44% and a temperature of 21˚C (Coughlan et al., 2015). At a slightly higher RH of 58% (T = 23˚C) Lemna minuta still displayed some viability after 4 hours out of the aquatic medium (Coughlan et al., 2015). Neil Coughlan’s research showed that between the feathers near the posterior neck of a mallard duck, the RH is around 65% and the temperature 23˚C. Near the inner crural (upper part of the leg), the RH is even higher at around 77% with a temperature of 24˚C. Interestingly, the downy feathers of the inner crural were also found to retain entangled Lemnaceae fronds more effectively than areas of less downy plumage, such as the back of the neck. All in all, we reckon that Lemna minuta can be entangled between feathers, and survive flights of up to four hour’s duration. Given an average speed for mallards of 65 km/h-1, we argue that duckweed dispersal over distances of up to 250km is realistic, although much shorter distances (< 50km) are likely more common. This underlines the mobility of Lemnaceae.

Practical considerations

So where does that leave the duckweed industry? There are two practical considerations for Lemnaceae cultivation systems:

(1) preventive steps need to be taken if one wants to avoid bird-mediated contamination of an outdoor Lemnaceae culture (e.g. dilution of a selected clone by non-selected, native clones)

(2) preventive steps need to be taken to avoid introduction of selected alien species or clones into the local environment.

At present, substantial efforts are involved in control of Landoltia punctata in Florida USA, where this is an alien, invasive species. Similarly, Lemna minuta is the focus of management efforts in various European countries. There is absolutely no evidence that the introduction of L. punctata in Florida, or L. minuta in Europe is associated with cultivation of these species by the Lemnaceae industry. Nevertheless, the industry needs to adopt a responsible approach when cultivating alien species of Lemnaceae, and prevent their spread in to the surrounding environment in order to maintain the positive public perception of duckweed applications as being eco-friendly and sustainable.


Coughlan N.E., Kelly T.C., Jansen M.A.K., 2015. Mallard duck (Anas platyrhynchos)-mediated dispersal of Lemnaceae: a contributing factor in the spread of invasive Lemna minuta? Plant Biology 17, 108–114.

Coughlan, N.E., Kelly, T.C. and Jansen, M.A.K., 2017. “Step by step”: high frequency short-distance epizoochorous dispersal of aquatic macrophytes. Biological Invasions 19, 625-634.