You’ve conditioned the water, gradually added the fish (that you made sure could all live together peaceably), and sensibly selected appropriate accessories to create an attractive, tranquil waterscape. You’ve achieved the ideal water temperature with top-notch equipment, you feed a high-quality food (but not too much!), and you follow a regular cleaning schedule that keeps your tank healthy and happy. Still, something is missing. You can’t quite put your finger on it, but you want to add another touch to your tank to make it come, well, alive.
Maybe that final touch is a selection of aquarium plants. Beyond their beauty, live plants can provide many benefits to your aquarium, including:
- Removing waste products (such as nitrates) from the water
- Converting carbon dioxide into breathable oxygen for your fish
- Providing shelter for your fish
- Helping to conceal aquarium equipment
And, of course, providing a living, natural touch to your aquarium.
Ready to add some plants to your tank? We’ve rounded up some ideal candidates for beginners, but this list is just a very small sample of what is available. Ask your local aquarium store specialist for even more plant recommendations.
Basic Plant Guidelines
Before you rush out and buy some new plants for your tank, take a few minutes to think about why you want to add plants in the first place. Do you want to improve water quality? Give some of your fish places to hide from other territorial species? Just add something pretty?
Your answers will help guide you in selecting the appropriate types of plants. Aquarium plants come in a variety of sizes, shapes, and colors. Generally, they are grouped into the three categories listed below. Depending on your goals, you will likely want to choose one or more of each type of plant to create a visually appealing waterscape in your tank.
- Foreground: As the name implies, foreground plants usually are placed at the front of an aquarium. These plants remain low to the bottom of the tank and tend to spread outward like a carpet, earning them the nickname of “carpeting” plants.
- Mid-ground: These plants are taller than foreground plants and typically are used along the sides and middle of a tank. These types of plants generally add visual appeal without interfering with the fish’s ability to move around the tank.
- Background: These are the plants you choose to conceal aquarium equipment or create a living background in your tank. Background plants also can give your fish places to hide.
Another consideration involves the type of substrate you have in your tank (substrate is the material you place on the bottom of the tank). Aquarium plants, like all living things, need nutrients—such as nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, iron, manganese and boron—to survive. Some plants can acquire most of those nutrients from the tank’s water, but most plants get their sustenance from their roots, which means the nutrients come from your tank’s substrate.
If you’re adding plants after already setting up your tank, you may need to make some minor adjustments to the substrate. Some options include specially formulated aqua soil, sand or gravel. If you use sand or gravel, you may need to fertilize the plants occasionally to ensure they receive all their essential nutrients.
Lastly, aquarium plants need light for crucial photosynthesis processes to convert carbon dioxide into energy. Most plants require about 8 hours of full-spectrum light every day. Many aquarium lights provide full-spectrum light, with LED aquarium lighting a good choice. This option typically is better than placing your tank in a source of natural light. Too much natural light may encourage algae growth.
With your tank prepared and your equipment gathered, you can enhance the appearance of your aquarium with some beautiful plants! Listed below are some hardy varieties in the three main categories—but this list is by no means all inclusive. Once you’ve added a few and figured out what works best in your tank, expand your horizons with even more varieties!
Foreground “Carpet” Plants
As mentioned before, foreground plants grow slowly and look like a carpet on the bottom of your tank. Some good carpeting plant options for beginners include:
- Java Moss. This foreground plant is good for helping maintain good water quality, as it tends to grow quickly and filter a large amount of water. It is low maintenance, grows well in almost all lighting conditions, and tolerates temperatures from 72-90 degrees F. Typical uses for this “fuzzy” looking plant include decoration, substrate covering, and providing an area for the breeding of certain types of fish. Note that in some cases, this plant has been known to float, so ensure that you secure the plant to the substrate.
- Marsilea Minuta. Easily identified by its clover-like appearance, this foreground plant grows quickly and provides a lush carpet that looks nice next to stone, dark sand, and soil. This plant tolerates most environments, preferring a water temperature of 73-78 degrees F. While it will grow in most lighting conditions, it does best with medium lighting. Typical uses include decoration, carpeting, and accenting hardscape features within the tank.
Mid-ground plants can add dimension and interest to your tank when planted (as the name implies) in the middle of the tank. They also look good and help provide places for fish to hide when planted along the sides of the tank. Good choices for first-time aquarium plant growers include the following:
- Java Fern. As a very low maintenance plant with a look all its own, Java Fern remains popular with most aquarium enthusiasts. It looks good when planted almost anywhere in the tank, and its semi-striped, thick leaves grow together in attractive clusters. This plant grows best in temperatures from 72-78 degrees F and prefers low to medium lighting. Typical uses include decoration, protection from fish, and screening of low-lying aquarium equipment.
- Anubias Nana. This plant tolerates almost all water qualities and environments. The curved stems and large, semi-round leaves of this plant nicely complement stone aquascaping, making it a popular mid-ground choice. Anubias Nana prefers water temperatures between 72-78 degrees F and grows best in medium lighting. Typical uses are decoration and protection for fish.
Background plants provide just that—a backdrop for your aquarium. The plants below can grow quite tall and make good choices for beginners.
- Amazon Sword. This plant is a staple for many aquariums with living plants, and for good reason. It’s low-maintenance, grows quickly, and can be quite striking when placed in a prominent spot. Because it can grow up to 20 inches tall, this plant may be more appropriate for a larger tank, or a spot closer to the mid-back of the tank. The Amazon Sword prefers water temperatures from 72-82 degrees F, prefers loose substrate, and grows best in medium lighting. Typical uses include decoration, obscuring tank equipment, and providing protection for fish.
- Aponogeton Ulvaceus Bulb. This tolerant plant is known for its beautiful, rippled leaves and its ability to spread well. A single bulb can produce up to 40 leaves. This plant prefers water temperatures 68 to 72 degrees F but can tolerate slightly warmer temps. Medium lighting conditions are best. Typical uses include decoration, screening of aquarium equipment, and protection for fish.