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How to Take Care of Live Plants in Your Aquarium

Jana worked in animal welfare with abused and unwanted pets. She loves sharing her hands-on experience regarding domestic and wild critters.

Aquascaping has a number of benefits for your aquarium.

Aquascaping has a number of benefits for your aquarium.

What You'll Learn About Aquascaping

  1. The benefits of live plants
  2. The drawbacks
  3. Buying plants
  4. Basic care
  5. Specific species and their requirements

The Benefits of Aquascaping

  • Real plants make an aquarium look more professional
  • The natural beauty cannot be matched by artificial plants
  • It's calming for both the owner and fish
  • A great hiding place for pregnant females, tiny fry and bullied fish
  • Provides spawning ground for livebearers
  • Provides shade when it's hot
  • Removes sulfur and carbon dioxide from the water
  • Adds oxygen to the water
  • Prevents algae from taking over
  • Homes beneficial bacteria
  • Some plants provide a nutritious food source for your fish

The Drawbacks of Aquascaping

When populating a tank with living things, plants included, there's always the risk of disease and waste. The good news is that disease is rare in aquatic gardens. Waste can be dealt with through close monitoring. Remove off-looking or discarded leaves, and dead plants as soon as you spot them. Here are some of the most common plant problems.

  • Yellow leaves: An iron deficiency that can be rectified with iron-containing aquatic plant fertilizer (never use fertilizer meant for terrestrial plants, they'll harm your fish)
  • Dark leaves: Too much iron, usually solved by water changes
  • Holes: Nibbling fish, or rot caused by high levels of nitrates, corrected by water changes
  • Only certain plants are dying: Too little CO2 for the dying species; corrected by learning about the correct levels needed for each plant in your tank (watch your pH; adding more CO2 lowers it)

Another drawback is dealing with fish products. Most medications aren't plant-friendly, meaning that you'll have to remove your pets to a hospital tank for treatment. The same goes for any tonic, supplement or additive meant for fish. You'll have to make sure that they're suitable for an aquascaped aquarium.

Duckweed, also known as Lemna minor

Duckweed, also known as Lemna minor

Where to Buy Plants

Finding your first plants can be hard. Often, the local pet store might not even have the species that you want. Sometimes they won't have any aquatic plants for sale.

Don't despair, though, because many pet shops have contacts with dealers and do take orders on their behalf. There's always the choice of buying from online businesses. These are more likely to stock the plants you've already set your heart on but cannot find in brick-and-mortar stores.

Tips for Buying Plants From Brick-and-Mortar Stores

Oh, happy day. Your local pet store sells aquarium plants. This is great since it allows you to examine the quality of the plants up close before purchasing. Here are a few things to keep in mind.

  • Some stores are a bit sneaky; they sell normal garden plants as aquatic (they'll die underwater)
  • Learn the species to recognize name labels
  • Most are tropical species and need warm water. If the store holds their plants in cold water, they'll most likely perish soon after you buy them
  • The store must be willing to bag the plant you buy, fully submerged just like a newly-bought fish
  • If it's a cold day—bring a cooler box to keep your plant warm on the way home
  • Grab some potassium permanganate off the shelf, because you're going to need it later

How Many Plants to Buy

All plants grow and some flourish a little too much. Very soon, they take over the tank and pruning might become a constant chore. For the best results, pick one or two species compatible with each others' needs and those of the fish. You can always add a third and fourth plant or species at a later point when your ecosystem is settled and won't be burdened by the addition.

Water lettuce, also known as Pistia stratiotes

Water lettuce, also known as Pistia stratiotes

The Plants Will Take Time to Acclimate

New plants need preparation and time to settle down.

  • Take the potassium permanganate and make a 10 percent solution in a shallow bowl of water, enough to cover the plant.
  • This disinfectant removes unwanted organisms.
  • If there's no potassium permanganate available, gently scrub the plant's surfaces in room-temperature water.
  • Remove all dead pieces with sharp scissors and don't worry if the plant sheds a few leaves in the beginning.
  • Most take about a month to settle down.
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Read More From Pethelpful

Four Basic Requirements for Aquarium Plants

All species need correct temperature, substrate, water conditions, nutrition, and lighting. Temperatures will be covered later in this article when the individual plants and their needs are listed. For now, let's have a quick look at substrate, water conditions, feeding, and lighting.

1. Substrate

Some aquatic plants are dead happy floating around in your tank, so you don't need to worry about the perfect substrate with them. Species that like their roots covered thrive in gravel (fine) or sand (coarse) around two inches deep.

2. Water Conditions

Dirty water interferes with a leaf's ability to feed, so pristine conditions are best. Also, avoid filters that are a little over-enthusiastic in the bubble department. Too much oxygen can displace the carbon dioxide your plants need to live. The pH for popular species will be given a bit later in this article.

3. Nutrition

Your small forest needs nutrients that tap water cannot provide. Luckily, there are products on the market that solve this dilemma in the shape of substrate tablets and liquids. Always keep an iron supplement in your arsenal. Without adequate iron, plants cannot photosynthesize properly.

4. Lighting

Plants need about eight hours of light daily. However, some prefer low lighting (see the species list below). You can adjust your aquarium light timer to keep the hours regular every day and should your tank contain both low-light and plenty-of-light plants, merely landscape them so that the low-light species sits in the shade of the other.

Brightness is measured per gallon.

  • Low: one to two watts (per gallon)
  • Medium: two to three watts
  • Bright: three to five watts
  • Very bright: five or more watts
Water hyacinth, also known as Eichhornia crassipes.

Water hyacinth, also known as Eichhornia crassipes.

Floating Plants

These hanging beauties must be pruned regularly otherwise they quickly take over the tank with unhealthy consequences to the fish. They remain a favorite of hobbyists with pregnant females or young fry that needs to hide. Here are some of the most popular species.

  • Water lettuce (Pistia stratiotes): pH 5.0 to 8.0, bright light, 65 to 85 degrees Fahrenheit
  • Amazon frogbit (Limnobium laevigatum): pH 6.5 to 7.5, medium to bright light, 64 to 82 degrees Fahrenheit
  • Duckweed (Lemna minor): pH 4.5 to 7.5, medium to bright light, 64 to 79 degrees Fahrenheit
  • Water hyacinth (Eichhornia crassipes): pH 5.5 to 8.0, bright light, 59 to 85 degrees Fahrenheit

Front and Center Plants

Aquariums look their best when plants are arranged in a certain way. Smaller species add a great touch when they're planted near the front or center of the tank.

  • Baby tears (Micranthemum umbrosum): pH 5.5 to 7.5, bright light, 70 to 80 degrees Fahrenheit
  • Cryptocoryne (Cryptocoryne wendetti): pH 6.5 to 7.5, bright light, 70 to 80 degrees Fahrenheit
  • Pearl grass (Hemianthus micranthemoides): pH 5.0 to 7.5, medium to bright light, 68 to 82 degrees Fahrenheit
  • Madagascar lace (Aponogeton fenestralis): pH 5.5 to 6.8, very bright light, 60 to 75 degrees Fahrenheit
  • Brazilian micro sword (Lilaeopsis brasiliensis): pH 6.0 to 8.0, very bright light, 60 to 79 degrees Fahrenheit
  • Dwarf anubias (Anubias nana): pH 5.5 to 6.8, low light, 59 to 79 degrees Fahrenheit

Backdrop Plants

Plants placed near the back cover unsightly equipment and also provide the aquarium with a well-rounded look. Here are some of the best choices.

  • Carolina fanwort (Cambomba caroliniana): pH 4.0 to 7.0, very bright light, 75 to 82 degrees Fahrenheit
  • Hornwort (CeratopHyllum demersum): pH 6.0 to 8.0, any lighting, 50 to 80 degrees Fahrenheit
  • Amazon sword (Echinodorus amazonicus): pH 6.4 to 7.2, medium to bright light, 72 to 82 degrees Fahrenheit
  • Oriental sword (Echinodorus oriental): pH 5.5 to 7.0, bright light, 68 to 79 degrees Fahrenheit
  • Stargrass (Heteranthera zosterifolia): pH 6.2 to 7.0, medium to bright light, 70 to 80 degrees Fahrenheit
  • Corkscrew val (Vallisneria spiralis): pH 6.0 to 8.0, any lighting, 59 to 86 degrees Fahrenheit
  • Elodea (Egeria densa): pH 5.0 to 8.0, bright light, 50 to 79 degrees Fahrenheit
  • Red-stem milfoil (Myriophyllum matogrossensis): pH 6.4 to 7.2, medium light, 60 to 75 degrees Fahrenheit
  • Red ludwigia (Ludwigia mullertii): pH 4.0 to 7.0, very bright light, 64 to 77 degrees Fahrenheit
  • Giant anubias (Anubias barteri): pH 5.5 to 6.8, low light, 59 to 79 Fahrenheit

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2019 Jana Louise Smit


Jana Louise Smit (author) from South Africa on November 08, 2019:

Thank you, John. I'm glad you found the article informative. I'll definitely write some more about aquariums and fish in the future.

John Chamberlin on November 08, 2019:

This is the exact type of information I was looking for; and found this article well laid out & very informative.

Looking forward to more of your article's.

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