Beginner’s Guide to Aquarium Plants

A beginner’s guide to aquarium plants is something that most of us with established tanks would have found very handy when first starting out in fishkeeping! Hopefully our version here will help you find your aquatic green fingers.

Have you ever seen a well planted display aquarium and wished you could produce the same in your own living room? Do you buy plants which then seem to die off in a few weeks and don’t know why? Our guide explains some of the mistakes beginners often make and offers a few pointers on choosing the right species and how to care for them.

Why keep plants in your aquarium in the first place?

Why do we keep plants in our aquarium? Apart from the obvious aesthetic benefits, live aquarium plants also improve the water quality in your tank. As well as using up the carbon dioxide (CO2) and ammonia (NH4) produced by your fish, they also use the nutrients needed for algae to grow, so they help reduce or even eliminate algal growth in your aquarium. They also provide cover to help keep your fish stress free and provide natural boundaries for territorial species, as well as cover for small fry.

I’m often asked by those new to the aquarium hobby why the plants they have bought have died. There are a few reasons why this can happen. Plants need a combination of light, CO2, micro and macro nutrients in order to survive. If someone is struggling to grow their plants, I start with three questions to try and determine what their problems are.

1: What species are you trying to keep?

More often than not, the beginner I ask struggles to give me a species name. Their interest tends to be their fish and plants are very much a second thought. Often they have purchased plants from their local fish shop as part of a bunched deal, often they are not labelled up and so the purchaser has little or no idea what they have actually bought. Aquatic plants vary in shape, size and colour, as well as having different lighting, feeding and water parameter requirements. If you add a species which is not suited to your aquarium set up you’re going to struggle to keep them healthy from day one.

An even bigger problem is that many fish shops stock a range of plants which are actually bog plants, not at all suited to life in an aquarium and which can die in a matter of weeks if submerged under water permanently. For more information, please see our guide to non-aquatic plants.

The list below, under the “plant species to start with” section, features a number of commonly available and affordable aquarium plants which are tolerant of a wide variety of water conditions and lower light levels. It is important that you select species suited to your tank and as a beginner try and avoid those with challenging specific requirements.

2: What lighting do you have?

Many popular models of aquarium offered for sale these days were designed with more thought towards interior design rather than the needs of aquatic plant species originating from half way around the world. People often assume that plants will be fine whatever their tank is supplied with. Whilst this is sometimes true, it is not always the case. Some tanks simply don’t have what is needed for some more challenging species. Matching suitable species to your tank’s lighting is a big step in the right direction.

Gone are the days when aquarists used to get by with grolux tubes that were designed for horticultural use. Today’s fish keeper is spoilt for choice with a wide array of different lighting types including:

Fluorescent lighting: T-5 and T-8

Readily available, inexpensive and emitting little heat, fluorescent lighting is very popular. Its main disadvantage is that the lights need to be replaced at least every year in order to be effective, perhaps even every nine months or so in order for your plants to thrive. If your fluorescent tube is three years old and your plants don’t look too great, replace it! There are two main types of fluorescent lights used in the aquarium hobby. These are T-5 and T-8. If possible always choose the more modern T-5 version. These are a better choice than the older T-8 lights and have several advantages. The bulbs are narrower in diameter, measuring just 5/8 of an inch instead of 1 inch like a T-8. This allows you to fit more bulbs in your hood should you want a heavily planted tank. It’s recommended to use full spectrum (5000-7000K) bulbs. Unfortunately due to the different diameters, T-5 and T-8 tubes are not interchangeable unless you use an adapter.

LED aquarium lighting

LED (Light Emitting Diode) aquarium lighting has become extremely popular in recent times, and with good reason. They last over 50,000 hours and emit no heat so can be placed very close to the water surface so that your plants benefit from more from the light they emit. Their small and flexible size makes gives you an element of flexibility when positioning them too.  It’s also possible to buy LED lighting in a tube style to fit in the place of fluorescent tubes.

Metal Halide aquarium lighting

In reality metal halide is expensive both to purchase and to run and is really aimed at those using deep marine aquaria where the aquarist needs their light loving corals and other invertebrates to receive plenty of light at depth. Therefore it will not be covered by this beginners guide.

Lighting to avoid in your aquarium

Try to avoid using incandescent light bulbs. Unfortunately some of the cheaper, branded aquaria come with these fitted as standard in order to keep costs down. They are of little to no use with many plant species as they simply do not emit the correct type of light needed by your plants. If possible, replace them with a fluorescent aquarium bulb. Your local fish shop where you purchased the tank from should be able to advise you on this. As fluorescent bulbs are cheaper to run than incandescent bulbs, you should save money in the long run.

Photoperiod – how long to leave your lights on for to benefit your aquarium plants

Whichever type of lighting you choose you should really aim to have your aquarium illuminated for 8 to 10 hours per day. Using a timer with your light unit will ensure you achieve this daily. Should you start to experience algal growth, reduce the amount of time your lights are on for (the photoperiod) and monitor the situation closely, making adjustments as required, in my experience light intensity has a better effect on plant growth than the photoperiod.

How much light aquarium plants need

As for the amount of light, we would recommend that your aquarium has at least 2 watts per gallon (4.54 litres) as an absolute minimum. If possible aim for 4 or even 5 watts per gallon as this will ensure better growth.

3: What do you feed your plants?

Surprisingly a large number of people believe that the waste produced by their fish will be enough to maintain their plants and never consider adding a plant fertiliser. This is a big mistake, probably the single biggest plant related mistake made by aquarists. By not adding fertilisers you are basically starving them of the nutrients they need to survive. Whilst it is true that fish waste, uneaten food and even tap water will provide some of the required nutrients, it won’t really provide everything needed and you are highly likely to experience issues such as holes in the leaves, discolouration, stunted growth and thin leaves and eventually they may simply die off. In any case your tank will not resemble the display tanks you’ve been admiring online or at your local shop.

Just like terrestrial plants they require both macro and micro nutrients, in addition to COand light. There are several different types of fertilisers available to the aquarist.

Substrate fertilisers

Essentially these are almost soil-like or are made from clay based compounds and as the name suggests, form part of your aquarium’s substrate. Realistically these can only be added when you set up your aquarium from scratch. If you are planning on creating a heavily planted tank, then you really should consider using substrate fertilisers. Although on the costly side, they last for several years and will provide sufficient nutrients for many strong and healthy plants. Almost all of the really impressive planted tanks you may have seen online will feature a substrate fertiliser.

Tablet fertilisers

Many brands of tablet fertilisers are available readily. Nutrient rich ‘tablets’ can be added directly to your substrate, providing the required nutrients for plant species such as Echinodorus, Cryptocoryne and Vallisneria amongst others. One advantage they have is that plants can be fed individually when using them. Some aquarists also add them when adding new plants to their aquarium.

Liquid fertilisers

These are far and away the most common type of aquarium fertilisers used in the hobby today. There are many different products available on the market and care should be taken to find a high quality product. Usually, liquid fertilisers should be used weekly, though do check the individual manufacturer’s instructions as this can vary. Whilst they are ideal for plant species which absorb nutrient directly through their foliage such as Egeria densa and java moss, they do not provide sufficient nutrition to species such as Amazon swords so the aquarist may need to use a combination of tablet and liquid fertilisers to feed all of their plants.

If you have an aquarium heavily stocked with fish, consider using a liquid fertiliser that does not contain nitrogen or phosphor. These two nutrients will be present in fish waste and too much in the aquarium can and will result in undesirable algae growth.

Additionally …

As well as the three main questions I start out with, there are various other factors that can affect whether or not plants will be successful in your aquarium:

Aquarium substrates

What substrate is best for your aquarium is always the subject of much debate amongst aquarists. Large gravel is not suitable for Corydoras catfish for example as the sharp edges can damage their delicate barbels, so many Corydoras keepers look to use fine sand in order to prevent this. Therefore the aquarist needs to think about what fish species as well as what plants they want to keep before deciding on a substrate.

We would certainly recommend that beginners avoid the likes of coral sand, coral gravel or peat moss. The former will raise the pH of the water considerably and is really only suitable for specialist set ups housing fish that require hard and alkaline water. The latter, peat moss, will have the opposite effect and lower the pH which will result in undesirable water conditions for hard water species such as guppies and mollies.

If you are looking to set up a new aquarium and a well planted tank is high on your list of priorities, then it would be best to avoid large diameter gravel as this is a poor choice for healthy root development. You will however get better results with smaller 2mm to 3mm gravel if this is your substrate of choice. Be warned, coloured gravels can raise the pH of your aquarium and are best avoided, though some may think they should be avoided on the grounds of good taste alone!

Alternatively you could look to use sand. Either play sand from your local DIY store, silver sand from your aquatics store or pool filter sand. However sand does have a few issues of its own. Bear in mind that it can suffer from compaction and so needs to be stirred occasionally. This must be done in order to avoid a build up of hydrogen sulphide  gas which could be harmful to the inhabitants in your aquarium. The best way to prevent this is to simply give it a good stir when you perform your regular water changes. If it does become compacted it can also be difficult for the roots of some plants to grow through it. Try to keep the depth below 3cm or so and make sure you clean your sand thoroughly before adding it to your tank. This can be a long, laborious task but can be made easier by putting your sand in an old clean pillowcase and running water over the sand until it’s clean.

The good news is that there are a few substrates which are ideal for planted tanks. These include commercial products such as CaribSea’s Eco-Complete, although on the costly side it does contain all of the nutrients your rooting plants require and is available in black and a brownish red colour which looks attractive in your tank. There are also clay based products such as Laterite which can be added to your gravel or sand bulking out your substrate with nutrient rich material.

Bear in mind that old style under-gravel filters are best avoided if you want to grow aquarium plants. Oxygen rich water being driven over their roots constantly does little to aid their growth


No guide on aquarium plants would be complete without the mention of carbon dioxide or COfor short. Plants need carbon like every living thing and receive theirs through carbon dioxide. Some people believe that it is necessary to add COto the aquarium for good plant growth. Whilst this may be true in aquariums containing a large number of aquarium plants where competition for COis high, or where the aquarium has high light levels resulting in the plants being unable to cope with the demands of photosynthesis due to the amount of light, it is not always the case in sparsely populated tanks with just a few plants.

That said, there is no denying that the addition of COwill boost plant growth. However the addition of COis a complex subject and should not be added without undertaking additional research as adding too much can kill your fish and shrimp and is beyond the scope of this guide.

A note on red aquarium plants

There are several species and cultivars of red aquatic plants available in the hobby. These are very popular due to their attractive appearance. However as a general rule, they tend to need a larger amount of light than their green counterparts and are thus more difficult to keep. Their red appearance often relies on them being given iron supplements, so if you do buy for example a bunch of red Cabomba piauhyensis and do not add iron supplements the foliage will lose its red colouration and over a period of just a few weeks start to exhibit a more brown colouration.

Shrimp killing plants!

Well, not exactly the plants. However if you want to avoid killing your shrimps, you must read this and take note. Aquarium plants are produced commercially in Europe and the Far East with the vast majority grown in the latter. In order to enter the EU the plants need to be treated with pesticides to stop the import of unwanted ‘nasties’. This is a legal requirement and FERA the plant and seed inspectorate department of DEFRA will not allow any imports here into the UK without this treatment process as it helps prevent the unwitting import of, amongst others, Tobacco Whitefly (Bemisia tabaci) an agricultural pest responsible for the destruction of millions of dollars worth of crops annually. Whilst these pesticides have no effect on aquarium fish they can and will kill your aquarium shrimp, sometimes wiping out all of them very quickly.

Sadly, not all aquarium shops know this or they forget to tell all of their customers who purchase plants from them. Online companies may pack your order straight out of the box after receiving their shipment from the Far East so that the plants are still covered in these particularly lethal chemicals. When added into your aquarium without soaking or rinsing the fate of your shrimp is sealed.

In an ideal world every fish keeper would quarantine all of their plants before adding them to their main aquariums. In the real world, this is not really practical for the vast majority of people. Therefore we strongly recommend that you soak your newly acquired plants in a bowl or bucket of water at room temperature for around eight hours or so, changing the water fully at least four times. Once done, then give them a very thorough rinse under tepid, not lukewarm water, under a tap to remove all traces of pesticide. This will then ensure your plants are ‘shrimp safe’. Even if your supplier tells you that their plants are ‘shrimp safe’, we still recommend performing this procedure just in case.


Unfortunately some species of snail seem immune to the pesticides used before export to the UK. Therefore, before adding any plants to your aquarium, take a good look at them and check for both snails and snail eggs. Failure to do so can result in infestation and damage to your newly purchased and existing stock of aquarium plants.

Fish species of choice

Of course it should go without saying that after you have invested in the correct lighting, substrate and fertilisers, you still need to ensure that you don’t stock plant eating species of fish. No matter how good your set up is, if you stock species such as goldfish that love to eat aquarium plants you’ll never have the aquatic masterpiece you wanted in your living room. Therefore if you are planning on setting up a fabulous looking aquascape you must also research the feeding habits of your proposed fish species of choice thoroughly too.

If you keep goldfish, or other large boisterous plant munchers, and would like a planted tank for them it’s not an impossible dream so do take a look at our planted tanks for goldfish article.

Plant species to start with

Below is a list of commonly available species which are ideal for beginners as they are all tolerant of a wide variety of water conditions, can survive in lower light conditions and have no specific feeding needs or CO2 requirement.

Amazon Swords: Echinodorus bleheri

Origin: South America
Size: 30 cm to 50 cm tall
Temperature: 20c to 30c
pH: 5.5 to 7.8
Propagation: Propagated from adventitious plantlets on the floral stalk

A large and impressive species, amazon sword plants can form an attractive centrepiece in your aquarium or perhaps more commonly be used in the background of your tank. Growing quite large at between 25cm to 50cm in height, this readily available South American species does not require particularly high levels of light and is tolerant of a wide range of water conditions as long as extremes are avoided.

The large and attractive, light to emerald green pointed, lance like foliage make them a popular aquarium favourite. However in order to grow well, Amazon swords do require feeding. For best results provide a nutritious substrate or add root tab type plant fertiliser to your existing substrate. Liquid based plant fertilisers will not sustain amazon sword plants.

Propagation is most easily achieved by untangling plantlets which develop from the parent plant. Ensure that they have their own root system before cutting them free, this may require you to uproot the parent plant first.

Perhaps rather confusingly, two species of plant are often sold as ‘Amazon Swords’ in the trade. Echinodorus bleheri are true Amazon Swords, however the closely related and similar looking Echinodorus amazonicus is also often incorrectly labelled as bleheri. The name Ruffled Sword Plant is sometimes given to Echinodorus amazonicus as its leaves have a more ruffled appearance. Care is essentially the same for both species.

A cultivar variety Echinodorus bleheri ‘Azurea’ is sometimes offered for sale. The leaves are lime green in colour with elliptical and tapering ends.

Java Moss: Taxiphyllum barbieri previously Vesicularia dubyana

Origin: South East Asia
Size: the plant will spread as much as it has opportunity to
Temperature: 18 c to 28 c
pH: 6 to 7.5
Propagation: Propagated from fragmented shoots

Java moss is one of the most commonly used species of aquatic plant in freshwater aquaria. Originating from South East Asia, this hardy moss will tolerate a wide range of water conditions from soft, acidic freshwater to very weak brackish water.  It can survive in fairly dimly lit tanks making it one of the easiest species to keep alive.

Best results for good growth though will be achieved at a temperature of around 24° Celcius combined with the addition of a liquid plant feed as per the manufacturer’s instructions.

Java moss is regularly used by fish breeders where it provides safe cover for small fry from larger predatory tank mates as well as providing a great egg laying medium for egg scattering species such as barbs and danios. It is also useful to culture infusoria for very small fry too tiny to take baby brine shrimp or microworms etc.

Unlike most species it will not root into the substrate. Some beginners make the mistake of adding java moss directly into their tank where it is then blown around by the filter, breaking apart and creating a mess. The solution is to tie the moss with dark cotton or a very low breaking strain fishing line to wood or rock in the aquarium, using plenty to ensure it stays in place. In time the moss will naturally attach itself to the aquarium décor creating an attractive and natural looking decoration as it grows over the cotton or fishing line. Alternatively aquarists can purchase pieces of bogwood, coconut shell and bamboo where the moss has already been tied to it.

Propagation is achieved easily by division, just split it up!

A similar looking species called Christmas Moss, Vesicularia montagnei is sometimes available in the aquatic trade. It’s appearance is similar, with perhaps a slightly more formal shape. Christmas moss however requires more light and is not as hardy.

‘Pond weed’: Egeria densa previously Elodea densa

Origin: South America
Size: 35 cm tall
Temperature: 15c to 28c
pH: 5 to 8
Propagation: From cuttings

Please note that this species is often sold by its old name of Elodea densa. Ideal for both tropical and temperate aquaria this weed like plant is very easy to grow and if given lots of light and fertiliser will grow very quickly. Care should be given when handling as its brittle nature can often lead to plants snapping. Broken stems however are likely to develop into new plants. A liquid based plant fertiliser will ensure good growth.

Bunches of Egeria densa are ideal for tanks where you may wish to protect small fry from predatory fish as it will provide an ideal area for them to hide.

Unusually Egeria can utilise carbonate from the aquarium water for photosynthesis which helps to reduce carbonate hardness in the aquarium.

Anubias barteri

Origin: West Africa
Size: 23 cm tall
Temperature – 22c to 28c
pH: 5.5 to 8
Propagation: From the eyes of the rhizome

Anubias barteri is an attractive broad leaved species from West Africa. Many man made cultivars have been created in recent years offering an array of different foliage types with some variegated varieties also. Perhaps the most important thing to consider is that there are essentially two types; Anubias barteri which can grow quite large and Anubias barteri ‘nana’ which is a much smaller dwarf version, with the latter making a better choice for smaller aquaria.

A hardy plant it can be kept in a variety of water conditions and will tolerate low light conditions, though it will grow more quickly if more light is provided.

Like Java Fern and Java Moss, Anubias barteri can often be purchased already attached to bogwood commercially. Alternatively you can purchase your own plants and either attach to wood with dark cotton or plant directly in the substrate making sure the rhizome itself is NOT buried, only the roots should be. A liquid based plant fertiliser will ensure good growth

Propagation is very easy with this species. Simply use a sharp bladed knife to cut the rhizome and split into plants making sure there are at least four and preferably six healthy leaves per piece. Take care not to accidentally cut the roots at this point!

There are many man made cultivars of this species available. These include but are not limited to Anubias barteri var. barteri ‘Marble’, Anubias barteri var. barteri ‘Broad Leaf’, Anubias barteri var. barteri ‘Variegated’, Anubias barteri var. barteri ‘Wavy’, Anubias barteri var. ‘Coffeefolia’, Anubias barteri var. ‘Nana’, Anubias barteri var. nana ‘Marble’ and Anubias barteri var. nana ‘Narrowleaf’, Anubias barteri var. nana ‘Petite’, Anubias barteri var. nana ‘Stardust’, Anubias barteri var. nana ‘Variegated’, Anubias barteri var. nana ‘Petite’, Anubias barteri var. nana ‘Wrinkled Leaf’.

Java fern: Microsorium pteropus

Origin: Asia
Size: 25 cm tall
Temperature: 18c to 30c
pH: 5 to 8
Propagation: Either by removing plantlets from leaves or from the eyes of the rhizome

Java fern is arguably the most bomb proof plant the aquarist can keep. It is tolerant of a wide range of water conditions, can survive in lower light conditions and is not eaten by fish due to its tough fibrous foliage. All of these factors make it one of the most popular plants found in aquaria and terraria today.

The plant has a horizontal rhizome of which leaves grow from in an upright manner. Unfortunately beginners often mistake this rhizome as roots and bury it in the aquarium substrate which will eventually kill it. Instead, java fern should be tied to rocks or wood using dark coloured cotton or a low breaking strain fishing line to keep them in place. Alternatively you can purchase commercially available pieces of bogwood with java fern already attached.

Feeding with a good quality liquid plant fertiliser as per the manufacturers instructions should ensure good growth and attractive green foliage.

Three cultivars of java fern are available in the trade. These are M. pteropus ‘narrow leaf’, M. pteropus ‘Windelov’ and M. pteropus tropica. Care for all is essentially the same, however bear in mind that the ‘tropica’ cultivar grows large, up to 50cm in height and so is really only suitable for large, tall aquaria.

Spatterdock: Nuphar japonica

Origin: Japan
Size: Large! Leaves can measure 30 cm long each
Temperature: 18c to 27c
pH: 5.5 to 7.3
Propagation: From the eyes of the rhizome

Spatterdocks are large and hardy plants suitable for larger aquariums, ideally at least 45cm deep. Sometimes called yellow pond lilies, this species naturally inhabits deep pools with still or very slow moving water. With care and attention they will produce a yellow lily flower. They are ideal for those with a larger tank looking for a large specimen plant, or those with fish that dig up smaller plants. They need a nutrient rich bottom and a reasonable amount of light to flourish, therefore the addition of root tabs will benefit them greatly.

Spatterdocks are usually sold as bulbs in the UK with a large stout rhizome being supplied featuring large arrow shaped leaves.

A cultivar version, Nuphar japonica var. ‘Rubrotincta’ with yellow to brownish leaves is sometimes offered for sale, but is very rare. Care is identical to wild type examples.

Aponogeton ulvaceous

Origin: Madagascar
Size: Large! Leaves can measure 50 cm long each
Temperature: 20c to 27c
pH: 6.5 to 7.5
Propagation: From seeds and tubers

Like Nuphar japonica, this is a species only really suited to larger aquaria, they are not at all suitable for smaller nano tanks. The leaves are wavy, slightly curled and are light green, almost translucent in appearance. Each leaf blade can measure between 20 cm and 50 cm in length. I have personally experienced one of these grow approximately 14 cm in one day! They are sometimes sold as bulbs rather than established plants, plant the bulb three quarters buried in a deep, nutrient rich substrate. Do ensure you have at least 2 watts per gallon of light if keeping this species though, preferably more.

Moss Balls: Chladophora aegagropila

Origin: Scotland, Japan, Australia, Iceland and Estonia
Size: Potentially up to 30 cm across, though much smaller usually.
Temperature: 6c to 30c
pH: 6.5 to 7.5
Propagation: By division

Moss balls are not really a moss, but a ball of green algae. They have a velvet like texture and can potentially grow to 30 cm across, though in reality they grown much smaller. Sometimes called Marimo Moss Balls due to being found in Lake Akan, Japan, known locally as Marimo, these balls of algae are very easy to keep. Simply ensure that they have access to light, turning them every few days so that all of the ball receives some light and feed with a liquid based plant fertiliser. Do ensure you have at least 2 watts per gallon of light if keeping this species though.

Wendt’s Cryptocoryne: Cryptocoryne wendtii

Origin: Sri Lanka
Size: The leaves measure between 10 cm and 15 cm in length with the plant growing to around 20 cm across.
Temperature: 20c to 28c
pH: 5.5 to 7.8
Propagation: From runners

Cryptocoryne wendtii is another popular and hardy aquarium favourite, perfect for planting in the mid-ground of the aquarium. It tolerates low lighting conditions and hard water conditions well.

Like other species of the genus, Cryptocoryne wendtii can suffer from ‘Crypt melt’ sometimes called ‘Crypt rot’. This is a condition where cryptocorynes appear to die back when transferred to a new aquarium featuring different water parameters or lighting conditions. Some leaves die before growing back once fully acclimated, so don’t worry too much if you witness this after recently planting some in your aquarium.

A number of cultivars exist for this species including but not limited to Cryptocoryne wendtii ‘Broad Leaf’, Cryptocoryne wendtii ‘Brown’, Cryptocoryne wendtii ‘Chameleon’, Cryptocoryne wendtii ‘Green Gecko’, Cryptocoryne wendtii ‘Green’, Cryptocoryne wendtii ‘Mi Oya’ and Cryptocoryne wendtii ‘Tropica’.

Echinodorus tenullus

Origin: South America
Size: The leaves measure up to 12cm long
Temperature: 18c to 28c
pH: 5.5 to 7.5
Propagation: From runners

With a grass like appearance and smallish size Echinodorus tenullus is perfect as a small foreground plant and can be used to create a lawn like effect in your aquarium. To achieve a ‘lawn’ in your aquarium plant small individual plants around two to three centimetres from each other. In a few weeks the floor of your aquarium should be carpeted as the plants will send runners through the substrate. Small plantlets will then grow from these runners. These can then be separated for use in other aquaria if required.

Green Cabomba: Cabomba caroliniana

Origin: Central America
Size: The leaves measure up to 12 cm long
Temperature: 18c to 28c
pH: 6 to 7
Propagation: From cuttings

Green Cabomba is a very hardy species, and the only member of the genus which tolerates hard water well. It is often used by fish breeders as it’s bushy leaves provide an area of sanctuary for small fish fry. Take care when handling this plant as the stems are easily broken, though both parts of a snapped stem will usually then go on to grow into two separate plants.

Other species of Cabomba such as Cabomba piauhyensis (Red Cabomba) and Cabomba aquatic (Yellow Cabomba) are also available, but both are more demanding and are not recommended for beginners.

Baby Tears: Bacopa monnieri

Origin: Tropical Asia, Africa and America
Size: Height 30cm +
Temperature: 15c to 30c
pH: 5 to 8
Propagation: From cuttings

This is a great beginners species as it is pretty much bomb-proof and will tolerate a wide range of water conditions. Unusually it can even be grown in very hard water if supplied with supplemental CO2. It is an attractive light green coloured plant which will if cared for produce small pinkish flowers at the leaf node. If you find keeping live plants a challenge, then this is a species you should try. It can be planted in any kind of substrate.

Hygrophila polysperma

Origin: Tropical Asia
Size: Height 45cm +
Temperature: 15c to 30c
pH: 5 to 9
Propagation: From cuttings

Hygrophila polysperma is another attractive and hardy species which is ideal for use in the background. It can be used in both tropical and temperate aquaria and will tolerate a wide range of water parameters so makes an ideal beginners species. Growth can be fast and you may find yourself having to prune it back to keep it in check.

This very popular species is available in a wild type and as several cultivar versions including Hygrophila polysperma ‘Rosa Nervis’ a particularly attractive form with magenta coloured leaves with white veins. Other varieties include Hygrophila polysperma ‘Broad Leaf’ and Hygrophila polysperma ‘Narrow Leaf’. The care for all is the same as Hygrophila polysperma.

A few to avoid

Now you know the best species to start with, perhaps it’s worth listing a few to avoid whilst you begin your aquarium keeping career. I’ve listed a few species which are common in the trade due to their attractive appearance. These species can be very tempting to purchase, but may not do too well resulting in you wasting money.

Madagascan lace plant: Aponogeton madagascerensis

Lace plants are a truly stunning species, perhaps the most beautiful of all aquarium plant species. Unfortunately they don’t do well in low tech tanks. Correct positioning, correct feeding of trace elements, iron supplements and the addition of iron supplements are all required in order for them to do well. They also need to be closely monitored to avoid a build up of algae growth on their lace like leaves.

Crystalwort: Riccia fluitans

Riccia is actually a floating species of plant, though in modern day aquascaping it is often tied down or trapped in wire mesh to form a carpet in the aquarium. It has been made popular by the late and great aquascaping legend Takashi Amano. If you have never heard of Mr Amano, google his name now to find some inspiration for your next aquarium set up. It is not the easiest of aquarium plants to keep and really requires CO2 injection to grow well and thrive.

Glossostigma elatinoides

Another species used extensively by Takashi Amano as a carpeting plant. It is a demanding species which requires soft water and a substrate rich in nutrients in addition to bright light and CO2 injection.


Adventitious: Formed accidentally or in an unusual anatomical position.

Aquascaping: Underwater gardening. The craft of arranging aquatic plants, rock and wood in an aesthetically pleasing manner.

Cultivar: A man made plant variety that had been produced in cultivation by selective breeding.

Grolux: Grolux fluorescent tubes are designed to have the correct light output spectrum to enhance the growth of plants. Originally designed for horticultural use and adopted by aquarists, they have now been replaced by fluorescent tubes better suited to species of aquatic plants.

Macro nutrients: the primary macronutrients are  nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), potassium (K). The three secondary macronutrients are calcium (Ca), sulphur (S), magnesium (Mg).

Micro nutrients: A chemical element or substance required in trace amounts for the normal development and growth of aquatic plants.

Photoperiod: The period of time during each day when a living organism receives illumination. Day length.

Plantlet: A young or small plant.

Propagation: The act or action of propagating as an increase in numbers any kind of organism.

Rhizome: A continuously growing horizontal underground stem which puts out lateral shoots and adventitious roots at intervals.

Substrate: An underlying substance or layer such as gravel or sand in an aquarium.

Tuber: A much thickened or underground part of a stem or a rhizome.

Variegated: A plant which exhibits different colours, particularly as irregular patches or streaks.

Author: Jared Cave

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