A Clearing in the Thicket

(Unedited version)
Originally appeared in the June 2005 issue of
Tropical Fish Hobbyist Magazine

Low lush velvety dark green mounds of moss sweep up to meet beautiful red Ludwigia swaying in its aqueous home as fish lazily swim through the light green grassy leaves of Sagittaria. Contrasts in height, color and shape help to define the underwater garden. Whether you're looking for the tiny bright leaves of Glossostigma or the grass like look of pygmy chain sword, ground covers are a key element in the planted aquarium.

There are many taller plants but fewer of the low growing varieties. There may be fewer choices of ground cover plants but the leaf color, shape and growing needs of those available are diverse. Suitable ground cover plants can be found for almost every planted aquarium conditions.


I really love the primitive plants and several of them happen to be good ground covers. They always remind me of the deep and mysterious jungle. These plants developed long ago and are so different from the angiosperms that dominate the world we see now. They're really intriguing. Most aquarium mosses are very easy to grow. They will tolerate even low light levels, though they will grow better under more lighting.

The question of mosses and their names is long and confusing. There seem to be 3 general mosses; Fontinalis, Java moss and Christmas tree moss. There are several other common names that have been thrown around for these mosses, but I think these are probably the most commonly used names.

Fontinalis has been used for a long time in the aquarium hobby, pretty much from the start. Fontinalis is a Genus of aquatic mosses that has species growing in different places all over the world. Usually this is given the name Fontinalis antipyretica, though there is some evidence that there are a number of different actual species of Fontinalis being used in the aquarium. This is an attractive moss that's a bit lighter green than the other 2. Leaves seem a bit longer and more pointed and it can grow very quickly.

Java moss, Vesicularia dubyana, is another aquarium standard. It can survive in very low light conditions though it won't grow as nicely or quickly. Java moss is often used in fish breeding and in otherwise bare tanks. It also does quite well in the standard aquarium and can do so well as to be almost a nuisance. Java moss seems more likely to get into the other plants, and it's easy to end up with a large clump of moss in the taller stemmed plants leaves.

Christmas tree moss, Vesicularia fasciculata has become popular in recent years due to the extensive use in many of the Takashi Amano, Nature Aquarium World Books. It's a lovely dark green moss. The stems grow in a pattern resembling a triangle shape, like a Christmas tree which is where it gets its common name. This moss is very attractive and tends to be much better at having more controlled growth than the other 2 mosses.

Other Ground Covers

Riccia fluitans

Riccia has long been used in the aquarium but only in recent years has its use been changed to include being a bottom plant. This lovely bright green liverwort is tied to rocks, and wood to create attractive cushions of plants in the aquarium.

To tie Riccia to your rocks or wood, fishing line is usually used, or a thinner clear thread. The Riccia is held onto the rock as fishing line or thread is wrapped around it, to hold it in place. After the piece is finished the fishing line will show for awhile but if it's given the right conditions the Riccia should soon cover the thread. These set ups usually work best in aquariums with heavy lighting. Supplemental CO2 and additional nutrients may also be helpful in encouraging the best results.

Marsilea quadrifolia - Four leaf clover

This wonderful little aquatic fern has been in the aquarium hobby for many years. I've been keeping it in my tanks for quite awhile. It's undemanding and will grow even in rather low light. It is slow but given time will form a dense carpet of leaves. Some leaves can take the form of a 4-leaf clover, though I've found that not all of them will. In fact it seems those plants in the front of the tank with the most light will form a single leaf, while those in the back under the shade of other plants will be more likely to take on the 4-leaf form. This is one of my favorite of the ground cover plants.

Marsilea can be hard to find and usually when it is found it will have been grown emergently. It will take some time for the plant to adapt to life under water. The emergent leaves will probably die off and new leaves will form along the new runners the plant sends out.

Glossostigma elatinoides

Another beautiful plant made popular by Mr. Amano's books, Glossostigma seems to have become to the aquatic plant world what Discus has become to the fish world. And Glossostigma can be just as difficult to culture. It can do very well, covering the aquarium bottom, if given the right conditions.

When purchasing Glossostigma be careful to get healthy plants. They can be touchy in being shipped and held in aquariums that don't meet their needs. Healthy plants should be strong and stand up. The plants shouldn't have many dead stems, or black or brown areas. Plants in poor health probably won't survive to give you the carpet you're looking for.

When planting, place very carefully to avoid damaging the plants. Glossostigma needs very bright lighting to survive and will also do well with additional CO2 and nutritional supplements.

Micranthemum umbrosum - Pearl Grass

This is an attractive plant that can do very well as a ground cover. It does better in higher light levels, and will eventually fade away if not given enough light. Under the right conditions it can grow quickly.

Pearl grass has pretty bright green round leaves. Roots may grow along the stem as it grows over the aquarium gravel. Small bits of plant easily grow into new plants.

M. umbrosum is often confused with another plant, Hemianthus micranthemoides, also called baby tears. This is another attractive plant with small leaves. It tends to have a more upward growth pattern and though sometimes used in the foreground, it's not as much a carpeting plant as the others I've mentioned.

Cryptocoryne parva

This attractive and diminutive Cryptocoryne is the smallest of the genus. It is somewhat slow growing but worth the wait. Otherwise it's generally easy to grow and like many Crypts will tolerate lower light levels than some of the other ground covers. Of course with more adequate lighting the plants will grow more quickly.

C. parva may take some time to acclimate to your aquarium but once they start growing, they form tight clusters of bright green plants. They are easily separated to help spread them across the tank more quickly. Just be sure you're careful to not damage the tiny plants.

Lilaeopsis brasiliensis - Micro sword

This is an interesting plant but does best in higher light levels. It will grow in medium light but will do so slowly. It can make a beautiful carpeting plant, given enough light. Micro swords need strong lighting to form a dense lawn like carpeting of plants.

When you purchase these plants they are usually densely packed into a small plastic pot. The plants should be carefully removed and individual pieces placed in the gravel with some space between them. This will give the plants some room to grow and will get your carpet growing faster.

Echinodorus tenellus - Pygmy chain sword

Pygmy chain sword is one of my favorite ground covers. It does well under a wide range of conditions and spreads quickly. Though a sword, plant in the aquarium E. tenellus looks more like a short Valisneria or Sagittaria. It quickly spreads over the aquarium in moderate to high light levels.

When purchased at you local pet store this plant will probably look like a small Amazon sword plant. This is the leaf structure when pygmy chain swords are grown in emergent conditions. I always remove potted plants from their pots. After being planted in your aquarium the leaves will die back and new thinner more grass like leaves will appear. When the plant has settled in, it will start sending out new runners for new plants. If you can get plants that have been grown under water they will have the grass like leaves, and shouldn't go through the leaf loss that emergent grown plants go through.

The carpeting plants can really make your aquarium look lovely. With the variety of conditions this diverse group of plants can grow in, you can surely find the one that's right for your underwater garden.

Questions or Comments?

If you have questions or Comments about this column, join the Natural Aquariums Forum and post them here.

Welcome to the Jungle | Into The Forest | The Creepy Crawlies | A Clearing in the Thicket | Algae Eaters for the Planted Aquarium
North American Natives | Why things go wrong Pt 1 | Why things go wrong Pt 2 (Algae) | Algae Eating Shrimp | Lo-Tech Tanks
Welcome to the Fish Room | The Stemmed Plants | Mosses | A Livebearer Biotope | Planted Tank Social | The Genus Hygrophila | Cyanobacteria
Easy Plants | What I Did Last Summer | Decorations in the Planted Tank | Botany-An Introduction to Plant Biology | Botany-Anatomy of a plant
Botany-How Plants Work | Easy Rosettes | Going High-Tech | Floating Plants | Dealing with Success | Bringing the Outside In | Vallisneria
Hair Algae | Flowering Aquarium Plants Part 1 | Flowering Aquarium Plants Part 2 | Liverworts in the Aquarium | Elements of Design
Planted Aquarium Maintenance | More Mosses | Invaders | Ferns in the Aquarium | Setting up a Planted Aquarium
Seaweeds of the Pacific Northwest | Proserpinaca | Hardware for the Planted Aquarium | Rotala | Neocaridina Shrimp | Lo-tech Tank Tips

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