The Stemmed Plants

(Unedited version)
Originally appeared in the February 2006 issue of
Tropical Fish Hobbyist Magazine

There are many beautiful plants you can get for your aquarium but the stemmed plants offer the largest selection and the most diverse range of leaf shapes and colors. The stemmed plants also offer a great range in difficulty of care.

Many of the stemmed plants used in the aquarium grow naturally at the waters edge and are not under the water at all times. Most of these plants will do better in aquariums using CO2. Some of the other stemmed plants spend most of their time under the water, or are always submerged. These are often easier to grow and will do fine in aquarium without supplemental CO2 and fertilizers.


When planting your stemmed plants take into consideration that most of them will get tall. You'll have to trim these plants regularly to keep them from growing over the top of the tank or growing right out of your tank. There are also several of the stemmed plants that seem to look better kept trimmed to lower heights and many of them can be kept as lower bushes if you trim a lot. Be sure to research your plants a bit before you plant them.

Trimming and Propagation

Stemmed plants are very easy to trim and propagate new plants. Even though we often plant stemmed plants in small groups, each stem is its own plant. To make it really easy a cut section of stem can become a new plant. The really important part of the stemmed plant is the node. This is the little bump area on a stem where leaves or roots can grow out. When you're trimming your stemmed plants and starting new plants you need to make sure to remember that you'll need at least one node under the gravel to grow your new roots and at least one above the gravel where your new stems and leaves will start growing. While you may be able to start your new plants with just 2 nodes, you'll have much better results if you leave more nodes on your starts.

To trim your plant you can use small scissors, or pinch the stems with your fingers, if you have good fingernails they can be very useful for trimming your plants. Generally what I do is trim the stems an inch or two above the gravel line. After trimming several stems I plant the pieces I've removed in a new small group. Some people like to take the entire plant out trim the bottoms off, throw them away and replant the tops. This is done so there are no trimmed stems in the aquarium, as some find these unsightly.

Regardless of what you do with your trimmings, you will need to trim your stemmed plants. These are plants that need care to stay attractive. If you just let them grow they will eventually cover the top of your tank keeping light from the bottom where anything left trying to grow there will suffer.

Stemmed Plants in Your Tanks

If you'd like to try some stemmed plants or maybe more stemmed you should take in to consideration the needs of the plants. I know I keep saying this but I really want you to be able to succeed in your aquarium plant endeavors and the best way to succeed is to get the right plants for your tank and know what to expect of them after you get them.

The addition of fertilizers, CO2, and intensity of lighting will greatly affect the growth of your plants. Plants will not only grow faster with better conditions, they will also grow differently in terms of shape size and color. Many aquarium plants can take on very different leaf shapes and range of color depending on the conditions they are grown in. This is often most noticeable when you see the difference between an aquarium plant grown under water and above it. These kinds of changes will also take place depending on the qualities and amounts of fertilizers, CO2, and light the plants get.

And speaking of the difference in growing plants submerged and emerged, remember that many aquarium plants that you buy will have been grown emerged. There could very well be some loss of old leaves and stem while new ones grow in. Don't panic if you have some plant loss as long as you have new growth that's doing well.

Remember that lighting is a very important part of growing aquarium plants. If you only have a single florescent tube, which is standard in most aquarium covers and hoods, then you will be limited in the plants you can grow. Incandescent bulbs are even more limiting. Very few plants will grow in a tank with a standard tank hood with incandescent lighting. To get real growth you will have to have multiple bulbs or specialty lighting.

Where to Start

There are several stemmed plants that are generally easy to grow, and can often be found in local pet stores. These plants are a good place to start if you're interested in trying some stemmed plants in your aquarium.

Bacopa monniera- This is a great plant with interesting rubbery bright green leaves. Bacopa can grow quite fast and can grow in moderate to very high lighting. Bacopa will also be very happy to grow right out of the top of your tank so you will have to trim regularly to keep it under water. In an open top tank Bacopa can look very attractive falling down over the sides. The stems that grow out of the water will also easily bloom.

Cabomba caroliniana- Cabomba is often found for sale in aquarium shops. It's a lovely plant with delicate dark green leaves with dark red tints. Even though Cabomba is often seen for sale it isn't a particularly easy plant to grow. It can be persuaded to grow in good lighting, but would probably do better with added fertilizers and CO2.

Ceratophyllum demersum- An old aquarium stand by and a true aquatic plant, hornwort is a floating plant that never grows roots. Some people will use it anchored as a back ground plant but any parts of the plant put under the gravel will die. Depending on lighting and conditions the color can range from bright to dark green and even yellow or red shades. Hornwort can grow in most lighting conditions. Any broken off floating piece will grow a whole new plant.

Egeria densa (Anacharis)- Anacharis is a truly classic aquarium plant, but not always easy to grow. If you buy your plants in a store they will probably have large dark green leaves and be very bushy. Plants grown in the aquarium become lighter green and the leaves are smaller. New growth will appear this way, and looks rather unusual coming out of the bushier darker plant. Anacharis likes natural sunlight and higher light levels. An alternative to Anacharis is Egeria najas. It's harder to find but a very attractive plant.

Hygrophila difformis- One of my all time favorites, water wisteria is a beautiful plant with lacey bright green leaves. It does well in low to moderate light levels. I think water wisteria is most attractive if kept to a moderate height. It looks very nice below some taller plants behind it and ground covers in front.

Ludwigia repens- This lovely plant is a dark green with a purple or reddish tint. It makes a nice plant for contrast with the brighter greens of most aquarium plants. Ludwigia grows well even under moderate lighting. Ludwigia looks better if kept trimmed to a moderate height. It can tend to loose lower leaves when it gets taller. If you let it grow to the top of the tank the leaves will grow facing up on either side of the stem as it floats across the top of the tank. Roots will also start to develop along the stem when it's allowed to grow to the water surface.

Rotala rotundifolia- This is another plant that is often found in pet stores, it's also sometimes called R. indica. R. rotundifolia can grow in a variety of conditions. In lower light levels it will stay mostly green and grow more slowly. In higher light levels R. rotundifolia will start to take a yellow and then a red tint. If left to grow to the top of the tank R. rotundifolia will behave similarly to Ludwigia repens, growing along the water surface and developing roots along the stem.

There are many more wonderful stemmed plants that aren't too hard to grow though they are less commonly found. These include; Eichhornia diversifolia, Hemianthus micranthemoides, Limnophila aquatica, Myriophyllum heterophyllum, Najas guadalupensis, Potamogeton species, Shinnersia rivularis and Zosterella dubia.

For the High Tech Tank

The stemmed plants I've already listed are all able to grow in a relatively simple set up and can do well without the addition of fertilizers and CO2. There are a lot of very desirable stemmed plants that will not generally grow without more care and pampering, including adding CO2 to your aquarium. Seeing these lovely plants in someone's high tech tank may be the incentive you need to try CO2 and additional fertilizers, if you haven't already.

Alternanthera reineckii- This is a very attractive and colorful plant with longer leaves that can look gold to magenta. It can grow slowly in a low tech tank but can really look beautiful with additional care.

Mayaca fluviatilis- Mayaca is a highly sought after and beautiful light green plant with soft fuzzy leaves. This is another great plant for contrast and looks lovely in the aquarium.

Rotala macrandra- R. macrandra is another beautiful plant with gold leaves tinted in red. This is another prized stemmed plant for the high tech tank buff. Its lovely colors and attractive leaves make it a great highlight in the tank.

Rotala walichii- Like the other Rotala used in the aquarium, R walichii has lovely red leaves but they don't look anything like the leaves of the R. rotundifolia or macrandra. R. walichii looks rather like a red version of Mayaca fluviatilis with soft and fuzzy leaves.

Stemmed plants are great for aquascaping your aquarium. They are easy to place and keep at a desirable height with regular trimming. There are stemmed plants for all types of aquariums, and with the wide variety of leaf shapes and colors you can find just the right plant to complete that special look of your own planted tank.

Questions or Comments?

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

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