Easy Plants

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

There can be a lot of plants offered at your local fish store or on line sales. But they all have different requirements. Some can be quite easy to grow in your aquarium while others can be very difficult with out CO2 and high lighting. Unfortunately there are also several plants that are regularly sold in aquarium shops that are terrestrial plants and will never survive in the aquarium long term.

So what can you do to avoid the disappointment of filling your aquarium with plants that likely won't survive in your set up or even worse that no matter what you do will never live? You have to do your research first. It's no use wasting your money on plants that won't live. You want to get the plants that are most likely to thrive in your aquarium and the best way to do that is know what you're buying before you hand your money to the cashier.

Which plants are the easiest to grow? In part that will depend on your set up and the make up of the water you use in your aquarium, but I have made a list of some of the plants that usually do quite well even in moderate lighting and without too many extra needs.

One of my favorite plants that's easily found is the Amazon sword. The sword plants you purchase in the store has most likely been grown emersed, with the leaves out of the water. Those leaves will probably not last in your tank, so don't panic if you loose the original leaves as long as new ones are growing in. As the old leaves start dying off clip them off near the base of the stem so they don't start decomposing in your tank. Amazon swords can get quite large. They can easily totally fill a 10 or even 20 gallon tank.

Mellon swords are also regularly sold. These can also be grown fairly easily in your aquarium, though the leaves will usually take on a different shape once in your tank, depending on the species, water quality, and lighting.

Swords are known for liking nutrients through their roots. I've found that it will help them along by placing fertilizer tablets or sticks in the substrate near them. Be sure when planting your swords that you don't cover the crown of the plant, where the leaves come out, with gravel. Just cover the roots, it's better to leave a little too much out of the gravel than put too much under it. Sword plants can also have huge root systems that cover the entire bottom of the tank. If you later pull one out, and aren't careful, you may find most of the rest of the tank can come out with it.

Another plant in the same genus that I'll mention on its own is the pygmy chain sword. The great thing about the pygmy chain sword is it's a low growing plant. It will work great in small tanks and as a carpeting plant in any tank. They reproduce quickly and will soon look like a nice lawn in your aquarium. These are also usually grown emersed so the original leaves will die off and new ones will replace them in your aquarium.

Two other rather similar grass looking types of plants are also regularly available and are easy to grow, Vallisneria (val) and Sagitteria (sag). There are several species of both offered. The largest is jungle val. These can grow extremely long leaves, over 6 feet, and are really only suitable for large tall tanks. Most Vallisneria tend to get long leaves and you can trim them so they don't cover the top of your tank, otherwise they can block light from the other plants in your aquarium. Twisted val is an interesting plant. The leaves have the same shape as other Vallisneria plants but are twisted. I've found that these also don't tend to grow as tall as some of the other val and are more controlled in their growth. Most val can grow very well and can take over an aquarium. Vallisneria are true aquatic plants so you shouldn't experience heavy leaf loss when placing in your own aquarium.

Saggiteria usually has somewhat stiffer darker leaves but looks quite similar to val. The best way to tell them apart is the tips of the leaves. You have to look very closely but in Vallisneria the leaves are serrated on the top and in Saggiteria they are smooth. Saggiteria is often preferable to val in most tanks particularly smaller ones. It usually doesn't grow as tall as val and doesn't seem to reproduce as quickly, making it easier to maintain.

Java fern is another popular plant that's usually easy to grow. There are several very attractive varieties available. Don't plant your Java ferns. These plants do well growing on natural wood in the aquarium. It's easy to tie them on to a piece of aquarium driftwood with dark cotton sewing thread. Your Java ferns will eventually attach to the wood itself and the cotton thread will rot away.

Water sprite is another fern for the aquarium. It can be planted in the substrate or left to float with the roots trailing below. These are very attractive plants with bright green leaves. There are 2 species of water sprite most often encountered in the hobby, though others are sometimes seen. The 2 most commonly found are Ceratopteris thalictroides and C. cornuta. They are both lovely plants and differ in their leaf shape. Water sprite has an interesting trait in that baby plants form on the older leaves of the adult plant. They can easily cover the top of your tank so you will have to thin them regularly.

Hornwort is a floating plant that is also a truly aquatic plant. Hornwort is rather interesting in that it never develops roots. This also means that it's useless to plant it in the gravel. Any part of the plant you put under the gravel will just die. Hornwort can grow quickly and will keep light from other plants below it. Another interesting thing about hornwort is that a small piece of the stem will grow into another plant, so it's easy to trim to the amount you need, though you may have to do it quite frequently.

There are several very nice Cryptocoryne species and cultivars that are easy to grow, and will also do well in both low and high lighting. You can usually find these in the potted plants at your local fish store. If they have a name tag they usually are listed as C. wendtii, walkeri or lutea, and come in green red and bronze. These are plants that may have been grown emersed so don't panic if you have leaf loss at first as long as long as new leaves are forming. Once established crypts can grow a bit more slowly than some of the other aquarium plants but they will eventually spread and if not thinned periodically, can eventually take over the whole tank.

Stemmed plants are often a bit harder to grow than some of the other plants available for the aquarium but there are a few that will generally grow easily even in moderate lighting. These plants include, Rotala rotundifolia, Bacopa monneiri, and Ludwigia repens.

Rotala has small leaves that can take on a red tint as they get more light. Often you'll see the bottom of the stems have green leaves but as they near the top of your tank they start getting more red in the color. If you let these plants grow to the surface of your tank they take on a bit different look. The leaves will grow on either side of the stem facing up. Roots will also form on these floating sections of stem.

Bacopa is a bright green plant with rubbery like leaves. It can grow rapidly and tends to like to grow up out of the tank if allowed. It should be trimmed regularly if you don't want it growing out of your tank. If you do have an open tank it can be quite attractive if left to grow out. The stems will start to drape down the sides of the tank. I had some I let go in my fish room once that started on the upper row of tanks and ended up growing into the tanks on the two shelves below it and down to the floor.

Ludwigia can sometimes be a bit more difficult but still is usually pretty easy going. It's a very attractive plant. The leaves can be dark green on top but the undersides take on a dark red color that can even be almost purple. Like Rotala if left to grow to the top of the tank the leaves will turn to the light and the upper stems will grow roots.

Mosses are some of my very favorite aquarium plants. They are beautiful and grow easily in low to high lighting. There are several different mosses available for the aquarium. The most common is Java moss but Christmas tree moss and occasionally Fontinalis can be found too. Mosses are pretty popular right now and there are even some new ones from the Orient that are sometimes becoming available. Some of these may be more difficult to grow.

Mosses are wonderful on branches or wood in the aquarium and can be attached with thread like the Java ferns. They also look great as ground covers or between your plants. I find they often will fill in all the empty spaces between stemmed plants in the tank and look like a mound of moss with the plants peeking out the top. If you don't trim them back eventually they can take over the whole aquarium, so it's good to trim your mosses occasionally. You can cut or pull out the parts you want removed. Mosses also should not be planted under the gravel.

My favorite of the more common mosses is Christmas tree. It seems to grab on to wood and gravel better, stays down better and has a more attractive appearance. It's also easier to control. Java moss is thinner and tends to grow up more and faster. It's just quite as attractive in my opinion. Fontinalis is a prettier moss than the Java but harder to find and a bit harder to grow.

Remember that each plant may react differently to your aquarium. The plants listed above are those that are often available and that through my own experience and talking with others over the years seem to be the most likely to grow easily and well. Your experiences may differ but these plants should give you a good chance for success.

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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