Low Light, Beginner Aquarium Plants

Something is Missing

So you've set up a new fish tank and stocked it with a few fish to get it started. Standing back, you admire your work before frowning and moving that one decoration just an inch to the right. There. But something seems like it's missing: Earlier in the day, when you picked up your new fish, there was a tank of plants in the store.

Why Plants Are Important for Fish Tanks

Plants offer these benefits:

  • They enhance an aquarium's look.
  • Give fish a place to hide and rest.
  • Provide food.
  • Shelter fry and eggs.
  • Increase oxygen content.
  • Reduce harmful chemicals such as ammonia.
  • Compete with algae.

Low-Maintenance Aquatic Plants

The real plants at the store did look pretty neat, better than some of the plastic ones, but you're still not sure you want to invest in something that complicated. Aren't plants hard to keep? Needy? Don't they rot and cloud up your tank? Couldn't they hurt the fish?

The answers to those questions are yes and no. Just like there are beginner fish that are hardy and undemanding, there are also beginner plants. Or, perhaps, a better term for them would be aquatic weeds, since beginner plants tend to grow quickly and are very hard to kill once they are settled into a tank.

Beginner plants are low-maintenance and grow well under less-than-ideal circumstances. These plants do well with low light and low Co2 levels and use your fish's waste as fertilizer. Because plants use Co2 to photosynthesize, they release oxygen into the water as a by-product. Oxygen is what fish breathe. Plants also use the ammonia, nitrite, and nitrate from fish waste, purifying the water and making it safe for fish.

Plants also have the added benefit of making your tank look more natural, giving shelter to your fish, and even providing a little snack for some fish, such as mollies and silver dollars. Plants also compete with algae for nutrients and light, making it harder for algae to grow in your tank. Plus, they are fairly cheap and a little goes a long way.

Floating Plants

Duckweed and frogbit.
Duckweed and frogbit.

Floater plants do not leave the surface of the water. These plants have roots that dangle down into the water but do not bury in the substrate. They are extremely easy to grow and sometimes flower on top of the water.

Frogbit and duckweed are from the same family and look similar to aquatic clovers (little, clustered leaves). Duckweed plants are very small and multiple quickly. Most people do not want duckweed in their tank and acquire it as a hitchhiker. Duckweed is almost impossible to remove once introduced, but it does an excellent job of providing cover for fry, providing food, and sucking up nutrients. Frogbit is very similar but it is much larger and easier to remove.

Non-Rooted Plants

Java fern and Java moss.
Java fern and Java moss.

Non-rooting plants have roots but the roots should not be buried in the substrate. For most of these plants, if you bury them, the plant will die because it cannot access the water column for nutrients and oxygen. These plants do best either wedged in place, weighted down, or tied to a decoration.

  • Java ferns (Microsorum pteropus) have dark-green, thin, vertical leaves that grow out of dark, tangled roots. This plant actually roots itself to rocks or wood. It can grow quite tall, and given time, will fill a fifty-five gallon tank top-to-bottom. This plant propagates with little fernlets that grown along the mother plant's leaves. When the fernlets are fully developed they are released and float around until they find a spot to grow.
  • Anubia is a family of plants that also prefer to anchor on decorations. Anubia nana is a small plant with several large, round leaves. There are many types of anubia, but all do well in low-light conditions and have broad leaves.
  • Hornwort (Ceratophyllum demersum) is a native plant that does well in both coldwater and tropical tanks. It is a bunch plant that can either be floated at the top of the tank or wedged behind or under decor. It has rough, thin leaves. Hornwort grows very quickly and provides good cover for baby fish and eggs. It tends to grow upwards and pieces of the original plant break off to create a new plant.
  • Anacharis (Egeria densa) has long, thin roots that dangle off the stem. The stems have dark green leaves that trail up like a little vine. Like hornwort, it can be floated or sunk to the bottom. Anacharis grows upwards and propagates by cutting. It is a great treat for goldfish, silver dollars, mollies, and other fish that require vegetation in their diet.
  • Java moss (Vesicularia dubyana) is a dark green moss that spreads along the bottom of the tank. There are even reports of java moss "climbing" the bubbles coming off airstones and up the back of tank walls. To direct it, use black cotton thread or a rubber band to secure the plants to a decoration that you want covered. Java moss is especially good for danios and barbs which like to lay their eggs in the moss.

Rooted Plants

Crypts and Vals.
Crypts and Vals.
Dwarf Sag.
Dwarf Sag.
Jungle Vals.
Jungle Vals.

Rooting Plants

Rooting plants do best buried in the substrate. These plants have a variety of appearances, but most look similar to non-aquatic plants. Some even flower above water. These plants do best with 2-3 inches of substrate and lots of room to spread their roots.

  • Crypts (Cryptocoryne spp.) are a family of slow-growing plants from Asia. They come in red, bronze, and green, which can mix up your color scheme a little. Crypts will not take over a tank overnight nor will they shade out your other plants. The only drawback to crypts is what is called "crypt rot" where the entire plant may die back when transplanted. Given a few weeks to adjust, the plant will come back and grow better than ever.
  • Aponogetons will be familiar to most beginners. These are the plants that come out of those magic little "betta bulbs." The bulbs are actually rhizomes that grow when introduced to water. Aponogentons flower above the surface of the water and have long, narrow leaves.
  • Vallisneria or "vals" are a grass-like plant that grows using runners. Vals are very hardy and will cover the back wall of an aquarium like a jungle if given free-reign. Jungle vals work well in large tanks, as they reach over two feet in length. Corkscrew vals are interesting because the leaves grow in a spiral.
  • Dwarf sagittaria or "sags" (Sagittaria subulata) is a chain plant that looks like tufts of grass. It has bright green leaves and makes a good foreground plant because it does not get very big. Like the vals, sagittaria spreads via runners and can quickly fill a tank.

Special Care

The plants in this list do not really need a lot of special care. I have grown all of these plants in either low light or indirect sunlight without adding fertilizer or Co2. That being said, if you would like to get faster results, there are a few things you can do to give your plants a helping hand.

  • Flourite: this is an iron substrate you add into your gravel. It has iron and other essential nutrients for rooted plants like crypts and vals.
  • Root tabs: an alternative to flourite, these tabs are placed at the base of rooted plants for an extra boost. Root tabs usually last 2-3 months before needing to be replaced.
  • Liquid fertilizer: Seachem has an excellent line of fertilizers you can dose once or twice a week to give your non-rooted plants a boost. A small bottle in a small tank last forever. API's "Leafzone" is a good substitute if you cannot find or do not want to pay for Seachem's line.
  • Seachem's Excel: Excel is an alternative to DIY or pressurized CO2 systems. I have had great success with this product and it is easy to dose. It also tends to kill back algae. It will not alter pH or harm fish.

Plants for Beginners to Avoid

  • Any red or purple plants. Red and purple plants require high light and high amounts of Co2 and iron to thrive.
  • Non-aquatic plants. This seems like a "no-duh," but stores sell several plants that are not aquatic and are actually terrestrial bog plants. "Mondo grass," "Borneo swords," and "dragon flame" are just a few that will rot and die under water.
  • Plants in tubes. This may seem convenient, but most of these plants are not only non-aquatic but also are in poor shape after being kept without light, fertilizer, or Co2. Save your money and don't bother.

Take a Chance on Plants!

Hopefully this article is a step towards some experimentation. There are many plants that do well in a beginner tank, and after a few successes with these you may want to try your hand at a low-tech planted tank. Or maybe a more challenging high-tech tank.

Please look below for some video of nice examples of what you can do with beginner plants!

Low-Light Set-Ups

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Comments 9 comments

naveen 3 years ago seem to be goood

LauraVerderber profile image

LauraVerderber 4 years ago from Mobile, AL

Really great hub. I was looking for some easy plants to add to a 10 gallon tank to highlight a beta fish. I voted up. I love all the photos and videos.

Golden Fins profile image

Golden Fins 5 years ago from California

I really like the planted tank in the second video. That tank looks so natural, and the blue betta looks healthy too. Lots of great info on plants here. Thanks

eveliens 5 years ago

Aquatic plants are tricky, but once you get the hang of them you'll have a wonderful underwater garden ;)You might try frill, which is a light green, or there is a red version of cabomba (sp?) that may do okay in low light. Unfortunately, color directly corrolates to how much of the light spectrum a plant can absorb, so dark green does better in low light than light green or red. You might also try the dwarf sags; I've had good luck with those and they look like grass, so it gives you a little bit of texture difference and fills your foreground!

If you want a cheap way to add more light and don't mind DIY, I might recommending looking up 'rain gutter lights aquariums diy' and doing that. Then you can use compact florescents instead of the tubes. I used (3 x16w) CFLs over my 40 and the plants grow very well.

Amanda 5 years ago


Thanks for the info!

I found this site after being sold White Ribbon plants as an aquatic plant at the pet store.

After realizing it's not truly aquatic, I am looking for another kind to replace it.

You see, the two-tone Ribbon plant breaks up all the green in my tank and looks really really nice. However, beginner plants requiring little light like Java Fern and Amazon Swords are just green. Any suggestions on how to break this up?

Thanks!! :)

eveliens profile image

eveliens 6 years ago from SK Author

I'm glad this hub was helpful. I have a black thumb, so I didn't have a lot of luck in the beginning. I still have "easy" plants die on me occasionally, but most of the plants on this list are very hard to kill and easy to grow, so hopefully your luck will change!

chardee42 profile image

chardee42 6 years ago from Orlando, FL

I've had rotten luck with some of my aquarium plants even though I normally pick ones that are supposed to be "easy". After reading your hub, I think I have a better understanding of what I've been doing wrong. Thanks!

eveliens profile image

eveliens 6 years ago from SK Author

bayoulady, thank you for the compliment. There seems to be this hobby myth that aquatic plants are advanced and impossible to grow, but plants add a lot to your aquarium and are worth a try.

bayoulady profile image

bayoulady 6 years ago from Northern Louisiana,USA

I am amazed at all of the information and quality of this hub. Definitely rating this up and useful!

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