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Low-Light Aquarium Plants for Beginners

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I spend my free time (and spare cash) working on my freshwater aquariums.

Dwarf Sag

Dwarf Sag

Live Aquarium Plants for Beginners: Plants That Can Survive Low-Light Conditions

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. But something still 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. Adding plants to your aquarium is a great move as they have many different benefits beyond just improving the look of your aquarium.

Why Plants Are Important for Fish Tanks

Plants offer these benefits:

  • They enhance an aquarium's look.
  • They give fish a place to hide and rest.
  • Plants provide food.
  • They shelter fry and eggs.
  • Plants increase oxygen content.
  • They reduce harmful chemicals such as ammonia.
  • Plants 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.

Duckweed and frogbit

Duckweed and frogbit

Floating Plants

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.



Java fern and Java moss.

Java fern and Java moss.

Non-Rooted Plants

Non-rooted 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, weighed 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 grow 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 cold water 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 to have covered. Java moss is especially good for danios and barbs which like to lay their eggs in the moss.

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 rein. 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 to 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 lasts forever 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 underwater.
  • 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 videos with nice examples of what you can do with beginner plants!

Low-Light Set-Ups

© 2010 eveliens


the fish on February 18, 2017:

do aqatic plants need c02 and fertiliser

naveen on April 08, 2013: seem to be goood

Power Ball Pythons from Mobile, AL on September 07, 2012:

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 from California on November 29, 2010:

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 on October 28, 2010:

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 on October 26, 2010:


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 (author) from SK on September 12, 2010:

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 from Orlando, FL on September 12, 2010:

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 (author) from SK on August 24, 2010:

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 from Northern Louisiana,USA on August 23, 2010:

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