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Description

Azolla (Azolla sp.) is an aquatic fern consisting of a short, branched, floating stem, bearing roots
which hang down in the water. The leaves are alternately arranged, each consisting of a thick aerial
dorsal lobe containing green chlorophyll and a slightly larger thin, colourless, floating ventral
lobe. Under some conditions, an anthocyanin pigment gives the fern a reddish-brown colour. Plant
diameter ranges from 1-2.5 cm for small species such as Azolla pinnata, to 15 cm or more
for Azolla nilotica. Azolla plants are triangular or polygonal in shape, and float on the surface of
the water, individually or in mats. They give the appearance of a dark green to reddish carpet,
except Azolla nilotica that does not produce the red anthocyanin pigment. The most remarkable
characteristic of azolla is its symbiotic relationship with the nitrogen-fixing blue-green alga
(cyanobacterium) Anabaena azollae. The fern provides nutrients and a protective cavity in each
leaf to Anabaena colonies in exchange for fixed atmospheric nitrogen and possibly other growth-
promoting substances (Lumpkin et al., 1980).
Azolla has a historical role in agriculture. For centuries, it has been recognized as a useful plant in
Southern China and Northern Vietnam, where it has been used as a biofertilizer and green manure
for the rice crop due to its N-fixing abilities (Van Hove et al., 1996). Azolla was also mentioned as a
poultry feed in Peru in the 18th century (Feuillée, 1725). Azolla production was heavily promoted in
the early 1960s in China and Vietnam, resulting in a rapid expansion in these countries. It attracted
international attention in the 1970s as a result of the oil crisis and the rising prices of fossil fuel-
dependent N fertilizers. Azolla became a potential replacement for these as it was believed that it
could bolster rice production in many tropical countries. However, enthusiasm for azolla faded in the
1980s and was followed by a period of scepticism. Azolla production in China and Vietnam declined
(perhaps due to the increasing use of land for food production) and azolla development
worldwide did not live up to initial expectations, due to serious constraints such as water availability,
difficulties in maintenance and handling, high labour requirements and limited knowledge on the
specific needs of each azolla species (Van Hove et al., 1996). For instance, adoption of azolla as a
livestock feed failed in the Philippines (APO, 1990). It should be noted that azolla is often
considered by farmers as a noxious weed, so perception of azolla is not always positive (Lumpkin et
al., 1980).
However, azolla does have several unquestionable agronomic qualities: the capacity to fix
atmospheric nitrogen, a very high productivity in the right environment, a high protein content, an
herbicide effect and the capacity to decrease N-fertilizer volatilization. For those reasons, azolla
started to attract attention again in the late 1990s, notably as a component of integrated farming
such as rice-fish-azolla, rice-duck-azolla, rice-duck-fish-azolla or pig-fish-azolla systems (Van Hove
et al., 1996). Adoption of azolla by livestock farmers still faces important hurdles. In India, for
example, in spite of being promoted by non-government organizations, cooperatives and
government agencies, adoption has been slow and sporadic due to poor yields, pests, handling and
storage difficulties, and labour requirements (Chander, 2011; Tamizhkumaran et al., 2012).
Research and promotion of azolla as a livestock feed has been increasing. Because azolla has a
higher protein content (19-30%) than most green forage crops and aquatic macrophytes, and an
essential amino acid composition (notably lysine) favourable for animal nutrition, azolla can be a
valuable protein supplement for many species, including ruminants, poultry, pigs and fish (Hasan et
al., 2009).
Distribution
Azolla occurs in ponds, ditches and rice fields of warm-temperate and tropical regions throughout
the world. Each species has a specific native range: Azolla caroliniana, Eastern North America
and the Caribbean; Azolla filiculoides, Southern South America through Western North America
including Alaska; Azolla microphylla, tropical and subtropical America; Azolla mexicana,
Northern South America through Western North America; Azolla nilotica, upper reaches of the
Nile to Sudan; Azolla pinnata, most of Asia and the coast of tropical Africa. These species have
been dispersed by man and can be found outside their native regions (Lumpkin et al., 1980).
Water is the fundamental requirement for the growth and multiplication of Azolla as the plant is
extremely sensitive to lack of water. Although Azolla can grow on wet mud surfaces or wet pit litters,
it prefers a free-floating state. Azolla can survive within a pH range of 3.5 to 10, but optimum growth
is observed in the range of 4.5 to 7. Optimum temperature for growth and nitrogen fixation depend
on the species. It is usually in the 20-30°C range, though Azolla mexicana is more tolerant of
temperatures over 30°C. Outside this range, growth decreases until the plant begins to die at
temperatures below 5°C and above 45°C. Azolla filiculoides can withstand temperatures as low
as -5°C without apparent harm. Saline tolerance depends on the species. The growth rate of Azolla
pinnata was found to decline as salinity increased above 380 mg/l. At about 1.3% salt (33% of sea
water) the growth of Azolla caroliniana ceased and higher concentrations resulted in
death. Azolla filiculoides has been reported to be most salt-tolerant. During periods of stress,
anthocyanin is thought to protect the photosynthetic apparatus from damaging high light intensities
by absorbing some of the light and converting it to heat. For that reason, azolla often exhibits a red
colour under field conditions, especially where phosphorus is deficient. Azolla grows best in full to
partial shade (25-50% of full sunlight). Growth decreases quickly under heavy shade (lower than
1500 lux) and more than 50% of full sunlight reduces photosynthesis. The optimum relative humidity
for azolla growth is between 85 and 90%. Azolla becomes dry and fragile at a relative humidity lower
than 60% (Hasan et al., 2009; Lumpkin et al., 1980). Successful cultivation of azolla requires the
application of a certain amount of phosphorus fertilizer (0.5 to 1.0 kg P/ha/week), but this does not
necessarily mean an increase in the amount of phosphorus fertilizer required to produce a crop of
rice (Lumpkin et al., 1985).
Processes
Azolla can be fed to livestock either in a fresh or dried form. It can be given directly or mixed with
concentrates to cattle, poultry, sheep, goats, pigs and rabbits. It takes a few days for the animals to
get used to the taste of azolla, therefore it is better to feed it with the concentrates in the initial
stages. When dung is used as fertilizer in backyard azolla ponds, the azolla should be washed
thoroughly with fresh water to remove the smell of the dung (Giridhar et al., 2013).
As fresh azolla is highly perishable, it is advisable to dry it immediately when there is a surplus, or
for livestock species for whom a dried form is more practical or preferable. Azolla is usually dried in
the shade and stored dry, for example in a plastic bin, for later use (Giridhar et al., 2013).
Forage management
Yield
Azolla is a highly productive plant. It doubles its biomass in 3-10 days, depending on conditions, and
yield can reach 8-10 t fresh matter/ha in Asian rice fields. In India, yields of 37.8 t fresh weight/ha
(2.78 t DM/ha) have been reported for Azolla pinnata (Hasan et al., 2009).

Azolla production
A considerable body of research has been dedicated to azolla production since the 1930s and a
comprehensive review is beyond the scope of this datasheet. Azolla grows throughout the world,
from temperate to tropical countries. Production methods must be adapted to local conditions and
are not directly transferable from one country to another at a local level. Azolla production can be
relatively inexpensive but is usually labour-intensive and requires proper training, otherwise the
results can be disappointing (Lumpkin et al., 1985). Environmental constraints such as very high
temperatures, low humidity, limited water availability and poor quality of water can restrict the
adoption of azolla production (Giridhar et al., 2013).
Production for biofertilization
Production of azolla for green manure is done according to 3 systems. It can be grown as a
monocrop and then incorporated as foundation manure before the rice is transplanted, or
transported to another site for use on upland crops. Monocrop azolla has been used in China and
Vietnam during winter and spring to produce nitrogen for the spring rice crop. Azolla can also be
grown as an intercrop, and used as a top dressing manure after the rice is transplanted. This is
done in places where there is no time available in the cropping system for growing azolla as a
monocrop. It can also be grown both as a monocrop and an intercrop. This technique is designed to
grow azolla before planting the rice crop, allowing production of added nitrogen for the crop through
cultivation of intercropped azolla (Lumpkin et al., 1985).
Production of azolla for livestock feeding
A method for growing azolla for smallholder dairy farming in India has been described as follows.
The farmer should select a shaded pond close to the house (to ensure regular upkeep and
monitoring) and to a water source. An area of 4-4.5 m² and 10-15 cm deep can produce about 2
kg/d of fresh azolla, enough to supplement 2 dairy cows. A plastic sheet should be spread in the
pond and properly secured. To initiate azolla growth, sieved fertile soil mixed with cow dung and
water (or biogas slurry) should be added as fertilizer and the pond should be inoculated with fresh
azolla culture (about 800 g for a 2 m² pond). The crop is maintained by application of about 1 kg of
cow dung and 80-100 grams of superphosphate every 2 weeks. The first crop should be ready in
15-20 days and can then be harvested daily. The pond needs to be emptied once in six months.
Azolla produced in excess should be dried in the shade for later use (Giridhar et al., 2013).
Environmental impact
Weed
Because azolla can form dense mats on water surfaces, it is classified as a water weed in many
areas. It has been reported to disrupt fishing, access to water by livestock, impede water flow in
ditches, clog pipes, pumps and floodgates and interfere with watercress cultivation (Lumpkin et al.,
1980).

Environmental benefits
N-fixation and green manure
The main reason for the enduring popularity of azolla among agriculturists is its ability to fix nitrogen,
valuable in paddy fields under waterlogged or flooded conditions where N-fixating legumes cannot
grow. It is also a source of green manure for upland rice growing on the most fertile soils that
farmers are reluctant to use for legume crops. In 25 to 35 days azolla can easily fix enough nitrogen
for a 4 to 6 ton/ha rice crop during the rainy season, or a 5 to 8 ton/ha crop under irrigation during
the dry season. Azolla also contributes to maintaining soil fertility, by providing nutrient-rich humus
through its decomposition (Lumpkin et al., 1985).
Limitation of N volatilization
By reducing light intensity underwater, azolla inhibits algae photosynthesis and the subsequent
increase in pH and NH3volatilization. Because up to 50% of N fertilizer applied to paddy fields is lost
in volatilization, azolla could help to reduce the amount of N fertilizers in rice crops (Van Hove et al.,
1996).
Weed control
It has been empirically observed, and well appreciated by rice farmers, that azolla suppresses the
growth of some aquatic weeds by forming a thick mat that deprives weed seedlings of sunlight while
mechanically preventing them from emerging (Lumpkin et al., 1985; Van Hove et al., 1996).
Mosquito control
The ability of azolla to prevent mosquito breeding and thus the spread of paludism was suggested in
the early 20th century (hence the name "mosquito fern") but was demonstrated only in the late 1980s
by Indian and Chinese researchers. For example a Chinese experiment in controlled conditions
showed that full or 2/3 azolla cover could prevent or limit the oviposition of Culex mosquitoes. It did
not prevent ovipositing of Anopheles sinensis but limited the emergence of adult insects (Lu
BaoLin, 1988). These findings were later confirmed in field trials that showed that larval density was
greatly reduced when 75% of the water surface was covered by azolla (Lu BaoLin et al., 1989).
However, there are some doubts about the efficiency of azolla in mosquito control, since the
coverage required for a significant reduction in mosquito populations may be impossible to obtain in
practice (Van Hove et al., 1996).
Bioremediation
Azolla can accumulate excessive amounts of pollutants such as heavy metals, radionuclides, dyes,
pesticides, etc. For that reason, it has been extensively studied and tested since the 2000s as a
candidate for the bioremediation of waste waters and effluents (see the review of Sood et al., 2012).
Other environmental benefits
Other benefits cited in the literature include the reclamation of saline soils and the production of
biogas and bioenergy (Raja et al., 2012).

Integrated farming systems


Numerous integrated farming systems have been designed where combinations of azolla, rice (or
another crop), fish, ducks and pigs can complement each other (see the Fish section on the
"Nutritional aspects" tab).