(Unedited version)
Originally appeared in the October 2007 issue of
Tropical Fish Hobbyist Magazine

Vallisneria is the truly classic aquarium plant. A tall rosette plant, easily propagated, it is one of the earliest plants used in the aquarium and still is one of the most common and easiest to grow. A member of the Hydrocharitaceae family, Vallisneria is related to several other common aquatic plants including Anachris, frogbit, Najas, and Blyxa.

Vallisneria is often one of the first plants aquarists will attempt to grow and it will usually be very successful. Vallisneria is a truly aquatic plant, it will not create leaves that can live in an emerged state and it will not survive long if it's taken out of water. Despite the fact that the plant is distributed world wide, is very common, has long been known, and easy to grow, it's a rather interesting and mysterious plant scientifically.

Some species of Saggiteria, and perhaps the pygmy chain sword, Echinodorus tenellus, can sometimes be confused with the Vallisneria plants. In the plants I've grown I've found that Saggiteria is usually thicker leaved and often shorter though not always. If you look very closely at the tips of the leaves you can often see tiny spikes on the Vallisneria, like little teeth along the edge. The Saggiteria leaves have smooth edges.

Naming your Vallisneria

The most difficult aspect to dealing with Vallisneria is the name of the plants themselves. Vallisneria will grow very differently in different conditions. This makes it very difficult for scientists to know whether or not they are looking at a new variety of the same plant or a new plant altogether. If trained scientists have trouble deciding what type of Vallisneria they have, then how are the rest of us supposed to figure it out? Trying to figure out what type of Vallisneria I've grown has certainly been something I've had trouble with. Not only are there different scientific names for these plants but common ones too.

Because these plants are so variable scientists have turned to the flowers to identify which plants belong to which species. For most of the world the plants have been grouped in to two species, V. americana and V. spiralis.

V. americana includes the large Vallisneria often called jungle val, the twisted types of val including biwaensis and some of the americana have the more typical val ribbon leaf shape. These plants originate in the Americas and Asia.

The name of V. spiralis can add to the confusion because it is not named for the easily seen spiral leaves of some of the V. americana but for the less seldom seen female flower stalk (called the peduncle) of the V. spiralis.

You may have noticed I said for most of the world the plants have been grouped in to two species. Recently another Vallisneria plant has come in to the hobby, V. nana. These are from Australia, and they aren't the only Vallisneria there. It looks as though there are several species of Vallisneria in Australia. Hopefully we'll be seeing more of these Australian Vallisneria plants in the hobby in the near future.

Vallisneria in the Aquarium

In the aquarium Vallisneria are generally very easy to grow as long as you don't try to keep them in too soft or acid water. I've never lived in an area with naturally soft water so I can't speak from experience but Vallisneria is consistently listed as coming from areas with hard alkaline water, and not being found naturally in soft water. And it is usually mentioned in other resources that it doesn't do well in soft water. In fact some Vallisneria will even tolerate low levels of salinity and can be used with in a slightly brackish aquarium.

Vallisneria has always grown incredibly well for me. The plainer straight leaved plants have been the easiest to grow. These can be V. americana or spiralis. The plants grow so well they often are more like weeds, requiring a lot of regular pruning. They leaves can be trimmed with scissors to the length you prefer, to keep them from covering the top of the tank, or you can leave the leaves as shade or hiding places for smaller fish or fry.

You can grow the taller Vallisneria as back ground plants but I can't say enough that you will have to keep them in control or they will take over the tank. Because if their height I've found the taller Vallisneria plants are best displayed in tall tanks. Extra high tanks and tall hex tanks are often hard to plant but Vallisneria are the perfect plant for these tanks and with their quick growth it's really easiest to just let them take over most of the tank. A small patch of a lower growing, low light, plant or two in the front like Cryptocyrnes or mosses can make a nice planted aquarium out of an otherwise difficult to plant tank. A tall piece of wood or a few rocks can compliment the look.

The largest of the Vallisneria are often called jungle val. These plants have been classified as V. americana also but they require different housing than the smaller plants. These plants usually have much wider and thicker leaves and are can grow very long. The leaves can easily grow to 6 feet in length and more. In a smaller or shorter tank those leaves will very quickly smother out all the light from anything below it. As the plants get more crowded they will push leaves out of the water that will dry out and die, making an unsightly mess of your tank. Jungle val are beautiful plants when kept in a very tall tank appropriate of their size and growth.

Twisted leaved Vallisneria have been a bit shorter and less invasive for me than the straight leaved plants. The twisted leaved plants have had better growth for me in tanks with added CO2. I know other people that have also had very good results with this plant in tanks with CO2 and added nutrients. The twisted leaves can be very impressive looking and the shorter height make these plants better for mixing with other plants and more suitable to a structured aquarium than the other some of the other, harder to control Vallisneria.

Vallisneria nana has a much more narrow leaf. It's recently become available to hobbyists in the United States. These Australian plants were originally described as Physkium natans in 1790. I was given a start from one of these plant and added it to an aquarium with added CO2. The V. natans has mostly been covered and engulfed by the stemmed plants in that tank. It seems to take a while for this val to get established but I notice that it has been sending out runners and it's long leaves are starting to poke out between some of the other plants. That said I think this plant looks nicest in large group plantings and after mine grow out some more I will move them to a more appropriate tank.

Planting and Propagation

Planting your Vallisneria couldn't be easier. The plants roots should be placed under the substrate and the crown where the leaves grow out should be just above the substrate. Careful gardeners like to use long tweezers for planting but I prefer my fingers. Depending on the tank and what else may be in it I usually either plug the plant into the substrate then pull just enough out so only the roots are underground. Or if there is more room use a sweeping motion through the substrate bringing the plant in a bit off of where I want it to finally sit and sweeping the roots through the gravel bring the plant to the desired location. The roots stay under the substrate to the side of the plant.

The most common form of propagation for Vallisneria is through runners. These will grow all over the aquarium and each new plant will quickly start sending out runners of it's own. They can very quickly take over the entire tank this way. An important part of growing Vallisneria is going to be controlling it. The runners can be pulled out and pinched or clipped off the main plant and either planted elsewhere or disposed of.

You can try to contain the runners using pots or other barriers. I've tried this myself but didn't find it all effective, the runners just go up over the edge of the pot and continue on in their merry way growing across the rest of the tank.

One of the more interesting aspects of Vallisneria plants is something that isn't seen often in the aquarium, and that's their flowering and seed production. Vallisneria produce both male and female plants. The female plants produce flowers that float on the water surface. The male plants produce hundreds of flowers under water that, when released, float to the surface. These are carried by wind and waves to the floating female flowers, which the pollinate. After pollination the female plant produces the seeds.

Vallisneria is a great beginners plant, a fast grower and comes in a variety of leaf sizes, some with lovely twists. It's tall graceful ribbon leaves have graced aquariums for many years. These easy to grow plants have a well earned reputation as an aquarium classic.

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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