Aquatic plants make an excellent addition to your fish tank.
Plants not only look beautiful in the aquarium, but they also bring lots of advantages for your fish.
Read this guide to learn what benefits plants can bring to your tank, how to choose aquatic plants, and how to care for your aquascape.
Why should you grow plants in your aquarium?
Aquatic plants look beautiful when combined with sympathetic decorations in a natural-looking setup that closely replicates your fishes’ natural habitat. But keeping aquarium plants has more benefits than simply looking good!
Benefits of aquatic plants
Although you can buy silk plants for your fish tank, living plants undoubtedly take the prize for providing the best aquarium aesthetics.
Many easy-to-grow species of aquarium plants will produce flowers above the water surface if cared for correctly.
Living plants take many of the nutrients they need from the water column and substrate.
Plants take up CO2 and nitrates from the water, helping to keep the tank clean, healthy, and safe for your fish. That also eases the burden on your biological filter, meaning that your filter media lasts longer and doesn’t need as much maintenance.
Many fish species are shy and appreciate the shelter that bushy plants provide.
Betta fish enjoy resting on broad-leaf plant species at intervals throughout the day.
Vulnerable fry can take refuge amid the leaves and stems of aquatic plants,
making it more likely that spawning projects will be successful. Some fish species, such as bettas, use the underside of plant leaves to create a bubble nest, while others lay eggs that they stick to the leaves.
Finally, shade-loving fish species and small invertebrates enjoy the shelter offered by lush mats of floating plants.
Food Source For Fish
Many fish species enjoy nibbling on the tender shoots of young plants. So, as long as you don’t mind losing a few leaves here and there, living plants can form part of your pets’ diet.
Fish fry often grazes on the biofilm that forms on the plant leaves, using it as a valuable source of nutrition for the growing juvenile fish.
The surfaces of plant leaves can act in a similar way to your biological filter media, providing a surface on which beneficial bacteria can grow. The more bacteria you have in your tank, the healthier the water will be for your fish.
Types of aquatic plants for fish tanks
There are several types of aquatic plants that you can grow in your fish tank:
Many plants grow with their root systems firmly seated in the substrate. These plants often spread by sending out runners under the substrate, eventually creating a colony.
Rooted plants can be short or tall, so you can grow them at your tank’s front, mid-ground, or background. Some rooted plants can be grown attached to pieces of driftwood or rocks, creating a beautiful decoration in a natural-looking aquascape.
As their name suggests, floating plant species grow free-floating in the water, usually at the water’s surface.
These plants take the nutrition they need directly from the water column.
Root Feeders vs. Column Feeders
Aquatic plants derive some of the nutrients they need from light through the process of photosynthesis. However, plants also take some of what they need for growth from their immediate environment.
Root feeders are planted firmly in the substrate, absorbing nutrients from the water within the media. So, these plants generally do best in a tank with gravel substrate where there’s good water flow between the individual pieces of gravel. That enables the plant roots to take up the nutrients they need.
Column feeders are plants that can absorb the nutrients they need from the water column. Some of those plant species are free-floating, whereas others grow attached to rocks and driftwood, where their roots are exposed.
What plants should you put in a fish tank?
There are literally hundreds of plant species that you can grow in a fish tank. These days, aquascaping is an art form, and many enthusiasts don’t even include any livestock in their aquariums. The plants are the stars of the show!
However, just like fish, plants have different tolerances of light, water temperature, and water hardness. So, it’s important to thoroughly research the plant species you want to keep if your plants are to thrive.
Plant species for beginner tanks
Here are seven plant species that are good for beginner tanks:
Amazon Sword (Echinodorus bleheri)
Amazon Sword is an extremely popular plant perfect for a medium to large-sized aquarium.
These broad-leaved root feeders put out a deep root system that anchors the plants firmly in the gravel. You can propagate the Amazon Sword plant by snipping juvenile plants from the main submerged flowering stems and replanting the plantlets in the gravel.
Crypt, as this plant is commonly known in the hobby, is a low-maintenance root-feeder that’s suitable for a beginner’s fish tank.
The plant is slow-growing and doesn’t need any additional fertiliser to thrive. Crypt grows in any kind of substrate and tolerates various light levels. There are lots of different varieties of Cryptocoryne wendtii to choose from, including some beautiful green, red, tropica, and brown forms.
Bacopa comes from the southern US. The plant has a straight, vertical stem bearing lots of small, round leaves.
The plant needs medium to low lighting conditions, and you don’t need to provide it with any extra CO2. However, liquid fertiliser can help to boost growth and enhance the plant’s colour.
Bacopa is easy to propagate. All you need to do is trim off the stem tops and replant them in the substrate. Trimming the plant in that way also encourages the plant to develop a bushy habit and stops it from growing too tall and “leggy.”
Christmas Moss (Vesicularia Montagnei)
Christmas Moss is an extremely popular aquatic plant that’s easy to grow. The plant’s low-growing habit makes it the ideal choice for a foreground plant, and its fluffy fronds give the plant the look of a tiny Christmas tree.
The plant can be trained to grow over rocks and driftwood or even as a wall to create a forested look to your tank and provide plenty of hiding places for fish fry and shrimp.
Christmas Moss prefers soft water, but it’s pretty tolerant of pH and lighting levels.
Vallisneria Nana can be used to create an exotic underwater jungle look in your aquarium. The tall, grass-like plants grow up to the surface, provided you give them liquid fertilisers and root tabs to boost growth.
There are several different forms of Vallisneria Nana, including Spiralis, which has beautiful spiral-shaped leaves.
The plant grows by sending out a few side shoots into the gravel. This hardy and robust plant makes it a good choice for tanks containing fish that can be plant vandals, such as goldfish and African cichlids.
Java Fern (Microsorum Pteropus)
Java fern is available in a few different forms and sizes. However, the most popular variety in the hobby has pointed, ridged leaves with raised veins.
The plant’s leaves and roots grow from a thick horizontal rhizome. Java fern should be fixed to a piece of rock or wood or wedged into a rocky crevice using aquascaping adhesive, thread, or fishing line. You can’t plant this species in the substrate, or it will die.
Anubias (Anubias lanceolata)
Anubias lanceolata can be grown submerged or emersed, depending on what look you want and the nature of your aquarium setup.
This flowering plant is best grown fixed to a piece of rock or wood. Anubias can tolerate low to medium light levels, and the plant does appreciate extra nutrients and CO2 to boost growth.
If you want to propagate the plant, simply snip off pieces of the rhizome and fix them to a hard surface, such as wood or stone.
How do you plant aquatic plants in a fish tank?
Once you’ve chosen your plants, you need to know how to plant them in your fish tank.
The planting method you use depends on the type of plant you’ve bought. There are several different ways of purchasing aquatic plants:
Here’s how to plant each one:
Bunch plants consist of up to ten individual plantlets presented in a bunch and wrapped at the base in a piece of foam strip and held together with a metal plant weight.
Sometimes, the plants have small white roots at the base, or they can be simply cut, like a bunch of flowers.
- To plant these plants, remove the metal weight and foam strip, and discard them.
- Line the plantlets up on a flat surface.
- Use aquarium scissors to trim off the root ends. That encourages new root growth once the plants are planted.
- Leave 10mm of roots at the plant base, and remove any soft, brown roots that are already dead and beginning to rot.
- Select each plant at the base with aquarium tweezers and set them root first about 1.5 to 2 inches into the substrate.
- If you’re planting a group, leave 2 inches between each plantlet.
Potted aquatic plants come in plastic, slatted pots, set in Rockwool, and are grown hydroponically. The Rockwool anchors the plant while it grows roots but should be removed for planting.
- Slide off the pot to reveal the Rockwool around the plant.
- If there’s a ceramic weight in the bottom of the pot, remove that too.
- Carefully tease away as much of the Rockwool as possible from around the plant, using your fingers or a set of tweezers. Wash the roots gently under a tap to get rid of any clinging rockwool.
- Divide the plantlets into single specimens and trim off any dead or brown roots, as described above.
- Push the plantlets into the substrate to a depth of around 2 inches, making a small mound of the substrate around the plant base to anchor it securely
Bare Root Plants
Occasionally, aquatic plants come without weight or pot.
Trim off any roots, if the plant has any, and plant the individual plants as described above.
Tissue-cultured plants are popular since they are not contaminated with snails, diseases, and algae.
Tissue cultured plants arrive in a small, clear plastic container with a lid. The plants inside the pot grow in a clear gel.
- Remove the plants and the gel from the pot.
- Wash the plants under the tap. The gel should dissolve, exposing the plant roots.
- Separate the plantlets with tweezers. If the roots are matted, as with carpeting plants, just cut the mat into chunks.
- Plant the individual plantlets as described above. If growing carpet plants, plant small chunks of rooted plantlets.
Some plant species, such as Nymphaea and Aponogeton, are supplied as little brown bulbs. Some of the plants have a tiny sprout or a few leaves.
Put the bulbs on the surface of the substrate, where they can get plenty of oxygen. The plants will send new roots down into the gravel.
Since bulb species often grow to a large size, you’ll only need one bulb for most setups
Floating plants can come in pots, in fish bags, or loose.
All you need to do is put the plants on the water surface, ensuring that the leaves are facing upward and the water flow is not so strong that it overturns the plants.
If you spot any Duckweed in your plants, rinse it away under the tap. Duckweed is highly invasive and will quickly take over your whole aquarium if you let it!
How to anchor aquarium plants
There are many different species of aquatic plants in the aquarium and pond hobby, many of these grow in completely different ways, as they are accustomed to different environments around the world.
Some of these plants bury themselves into the substrate, whereas others anchor themselves to rocks and cliff edges.
We will separate the two largest groups of aquatic plants into Rizomas and non-Rizomas plants.
This family includes plants like anubias and java fern; they are characterised by having a bulb on the base of the plant, from which the roots and leaves grow.
The Rhizome in a plant is part of the roots, it is the main body of the plant which stores nutrients, from it the roots draw nutrients from the surrounding water, and the plants grow over the top to extract light.
The rhizome of the plant needs to be exposed so it may “breathe”.
- If buried under a substrate, the plant will actually suffocate and die.
If this is the case, then how do we properly anchor the plants and prevent them from just floating around the aquarium?
Naturally, these plants are found on river banks and rocky slopes, they grow like marginal plants and are used to regular floods and storms.
They achieve this by growing their roots over objects and sticking them to rocks and hard surfaces.
These plants are slow growing however, and it can take a long time for them to stick to rocks and wood, so how do people get the same effect in an aquarium?
Well, there are numerous ways to stick java fern or anubias to rocks.
Wedge plants in
The cheapest and most simple method is to simply wedge the plants between pebbles or stone to weigh them down. Eventually, the plant will naturally anchor itself to the stone as it would in the wild, but this can take a while, and the plant may be lifted up by fish or currents easily.
Super glue gel
The most effective way to do this is to use super glue gel. There are several aquarium based glues, such as Seachem’s Flourish Glue .
Only use safe super glue gels for this, normal super glue, or any other form of glue will be very toxic and kill your fish.
Tie the plants
The next most effective method is to tie the plants to a rock using cotton thread. Use a thin dark cotton for this, it will do an excellent job of anchoring your plant to rock or driftwood, it is cheap, easy to come by, highly dexterible and safe for fish.
Simply tie the cotton thread around the plant and object you want to anchor it to, knot the thread around a few times, and then cut it with a pair of scissors.
You can make as many loops as you want, the thread is removable at any time, and is in fact biodegradable after a few years.
You can also use elastic bands to tie down a plant, but be warned that the rubber can leach poisonous microplastics into the water, and can be devastating if swallowed by a large fish.
Lead weights can also be used, but again, this is poisonous and could have adverse effects after a very long time left in the water.
Non Rizomas plants / rooted plants
A plant which does not have a rhizome, and that grows within the substrate is much easier to anchor down, as it can simply be buried within the sand or gravel.
But what substrate is best for this, how deep should I bury them and are there any other ways of growing them?
The best substrate for plant growth is one which mimics the natural rivers and lakes these plants grow in.
In the wild, these plants grow in all different conditions, but nearly all of them have a mixture of different sized rocks and sand grains all mixed together along the bed of the river.
In your aquarium, a coarse substrate, perhaps mixed with some small pebbles and fine sand would be the best for plants to root and spread in. It will hold them down the best, allowing them to properly anchor themselves, and still allows the roots to breathe freely as there are gaps within the coarse sand grains.
However, coarse or mixed sand can still be dug up by certain fish, like plecs and goldfish, and the plants will be unearthed.
A good way to avoid this is to place the plant in a terracotta pot, or place pebbles / large rocks around the plant, so that its roots cannot be easily accessed and dug up by fish.
Some rooted plants can also be grown much like a Rizomas plant and can grow around a piece of wood or rock, they can even be floated along the water surface, however, they don’t do nearly as well when grown this way.
They ideally need a substrate where they can root and extract nutrients from.
How to prepare plants for a fish tank
The main risk of introducing plants to your tank is the introduction of snails.
Physa acuta or Tadpole snails are tiny, hardy snails that can quickly overrun your tank. Although the snails won’t eat your plants or harm your fish, they are an unsightly menace. You can kill Tadpole snails by adding salt or a specific snail-killing solution to a water bath and dousing your plants before you add them to the tank.
The same approach can be effective at removing hidden parasites and bacteria from your plants.
Aquarium plants that don’t need substrate
There are many species of aquarium plants that do not need a substrate to root within, these include the aforementioned Rizomas plants, as well as many floating plant species.
Plants like salvinia, water hyacinth and duckweed all live at the top of the water, sapping nutrients from the water column as opposed to leaching from the substrate.
Many marginal plants like pothos also don’t need a substrate as they can send off runners into the water column from where they extract nutriment, however, they will still do better on a soil substrate.
Elodea densa is a highly adaptable plant, it can grow in many different conditions, from the substrate, tied to a rock, floating, it can even grow ascended from the water sometimes. As long as it has water, nutrients and light, it will grow in any tank or pond.
Guppy grass and many mosses like java moss are similar in their ability to grow in a wide range of conditions, they don’t like to be buried, and get their nutrients from the water, moss in particular doesn’t even have roots, it simply grows along a surface and diffuses nutrients through its surface.
Baby tears and many other carpeting plants also don’t necessarily need a substrate and will quite happily embed themselves into a piece of driftwood, their tiny leaves and roots spread quickly like a sheet and can produce beautiful aquascapes.
How to keep floating plants away from the filter
Depending on the type of filter you go with, there are many ways around this.
Some filters have specialised blockers on them to prevent large debris from entering the pump, others are exposed and need to be protected from plants and large debris from blocking up the filter components.
- For most filter intakes, you can place a piece of floating pipe around the surface of the filter, to block the plants from spreading to the intake.
You can also use more direct blockers, like fine filter sponge, cotton or even tights wrapped around the inlet to block the duckweed or salvinia from entering and causing issues.
You can also just aim the flow of the filter to push the floating plants away, although this method is not as reliable.
How do you take care of aquatic plants in a fish tank?
The plants we mentioned earlier are all easy to care for, provided you give them the basic conditions they need.
Water Requirements For Aquatic Plants
Most aquatic fish tank plants do fine at a pH range between 6.5 and 7.8 and a general water hardness of 50 ppm to 100 ppm. The water alkalinity should be between 3° and 8° dKH (54ppm – 140 ppm).
Nitrate levels should ideally be less than 10 ppm and phosphates below .05 ppm to stop algae from infesting the leaves.
Water temperature should be between 74° and 80° F.
Ideally, you should change 10% of the water every week, and good circulation is important since that ensures a steady supply of nutrients for the plants, retards algal growth and helps keep the leaves clean of organic debris.
How Much Light Do Aquarium Plants Need?
The amount of light needed by aquarium plants depends on the individual species.
Some species require moderate light intensity, whereas others, especially those with red leaves, need bright light.
If the plants don’t receive enough light, they will grow toward the water surface and become stringy. In contrast, plants that receive all the light they need will grow bushier and be more vibrant in colour.
How long should you leave your tank lights on for your plants?
Ideally, your plants need between 10 and 12 hours of light per day for photosynthesis and to ensure healthy growth.
Do You Need To Feed Aquatic Plants?
Most aquatic plants can benefit from receiving some form of supplementary nutrition. However, that depends on the individual species.
In a tank containing fish and other livestock, the plants usually get all the nutrition they need from decaying organic matter and extracting nitrates and phosphates from the water. However, you’ll need to supplement the plants with liquid fertiliser and CO2 in a planted tank with no fish.
Rooted plants can benefit from the addition of root tabs. Root tabs are planted next to the plant base, where they gradually release nutrients for the plant to take up through its root system.
Again, how much nutrition an individual plant species needs varies, so you must research that before selecting plants for your tank.
How to maintain a planted aquarium
A planted aquarium needs regular maintenance to keep it looking tidy and to promote good plant growth.
- Trim away dead leaves and damaged stems every week.
- Carry out partial water changes of 10% per week.
- Test the aquarium water regularly to ensure that conditions are within the correct parameters for your plants.
- Gently scrape algae from plant leaves when required.
You might also need to thin out your aquatic plants periodically to prevent them from becoming overcrowded.
How to trim aquarium plants
Trimming aquarium plants is much like pruning a garden rose, although there are rules to some aquarium plants that you should know, as well as some things to look out for when performing maintenance on your planted tank.
- Most aquarium plants produce leaves much like those on land.
These are used to extract energy from the environment and are not the main body of the plant; they can be snipped off safely and can be pruned if your plant overgrows in your tank.
Like any plant, cutting the leaves will cause it to stress. In some plants, this results in a burst of growth, in others, it means they will stop growing for a while.
By using a pair of scissors, special plant pruning cutters, or even your thumbnail, simply split the leaf off at the base of the stem, where it attaches to the main stem or base of the whole plant.
You should try to avoid:
- Cutting weak or young plants
- Cutting half way down a leaf
- Cutting the Rhizome (unless you plan to propagate the plant)
- Cutting away all the leaves
- Cutting the main roots
Cutting your plants in this way can induce too much stress on them, especially on weakened or early developing plants, cutting too much and in the wrong places can stunt or even kill the plant.
There are, however, instances where heavily cutting back leaves can aid in the survival of the plant, such as if the leaves are covered in blackbeard algae, which could spread and emulsify the plant.
Typically when purchasing a new plant, you may find that some of the leaves melt away, this is a normal occurrence and is just the plant getting used to its new living conditions in most cases.
When buying a new plant, we sometimes actually recommend pruning some of the browning or yellowing leaves, which are suspected to melt, as it will allow the plant to focus energy on healthy leaves, making it stronger and healthier – this also prevents the pollution of your tank through decomposing plant matter.
I hope you enjoyed our guide to growing aquatic plants in your fish tank. If you found the article helpful, please share it!
You don’t need to be an experienced aquarist to grow living plants in your aquarium successfully. Choose easy-care species that require minimal maintenance, trim away dead leaves and broken stems, carry out weekly water changes, and provide your plants with the nutrition they need to thrive.