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Choosing Aquarium Plants
by Ruby Bayan

Aquatic Garden With sufficient background on how plants thrive and live symbiotically with fish in an aquarium, you will have the pleasure of not only a healthy habitat but an aesthetically attractive one as well.

Plants contribute largely to keeping the water balance in the aquarium. They are vital participants in the nitrogen cycle. The tank vegetation converts the nitrates they absorb (from the broken-down fish wastes and decaying material such as uneaten food or dead fish) into various essential nutrients such as plant proteins that herbivorous fish consume, and dissolved oxygen that fish "breathe" from the water.

On top of enhancing beauty and symmetry to a tank set-up, plants also provide a natural and secure environment for the aquarium residents.

Kinds of Aquatic Plants

Plants that aquarium hobbyists include in their setups are of two general kinds: submersed (in water) and emersed (out of water/floating). Both types have specific benefits to the fish community and the overall habitat.

Submersed aquatic plants are grouped as tubers, rooted, and cuttings.

Tuberous plants are usually sold slightly sprouted. Although most tubers are hardy and highly viable, purchasing a well sprouted or rooted one will ensure a better chance of survival in a new tank. Most of them, like regular non-aquatic tubers, need a hibernating period. This means that they thrive for one season (about eight months) then start to shed their mature leaves. When they do, they should be transferred to a cooler tank to hibernate for about two weeks. They can then be returned to the aquarium to re-grow and bloom. Their flowers will produce seeds that can grow new tubers.

Aquarium Plants - Tuber - Elephant Ears Examples of tubers are the Aponogeton (Madagascan Lace Plant), Nymphaea (African Tiger Lotus and Water Lily), and "Elephant Ears" (see photo).

Rooted plants are the most common aquarium flora. They are often sold as potted clusters but should be planted individually in the aquarium to provide for growth and proliferation. Once established, rooted plants grow well some extending runners all the way across the tank, some anchoring with creeping rhizomes onto rocks and wood. Depending on the variety, rooted plants can be used as tall backgrounders or clustered foregrounders.

Aquarium Plants - Rooted - Amazon Sword Plant Examples of rooted plants are Anubias, Cryptocoryne, Vallisneria (Straight or Twisted Vallis), Echinidorus (Brord-leaf, Ruffled, or Pygmy Chain Amazon Sword -- see photo), Sagittaria (Giant or Dwarf Sag), and Microsorium pteropus (Java Fern).

Cuttings are un-rooted tops of aquatic plants. They usually have finer or smaller leaves than rooted plants, with stems stretching all the way up to the water surface. Cuttings, although sold in bunches, should be planted individually to ensure proliferation and so that light reaches the bottom leaves. Fine-leafed cuttings are good hiding places for shy juvenile fish but are also prone to trapping "dust" if filtration is inadequate. Most cuttings take root after a while, and need to be trimmed for better growth and symmetry.

Aquarium Plants - Cuttings - Cabomba Examples of cuttings are Cabomba (see photo), Rotala, Bacopa, Nomaphila (Dwarf and Willow-Leaf Hygrophyla), Ceratophyllum (Hornwort), and Limnophila aquatica (Giant Ambulia).

Emersed aquatic plants thrive out of the water and the majority of them are floating plants. They don't need to be anchored to a substrate. Some are rosette-type with roots hanging freely into the water. These roots provide aquarium fish with a medium to spawn on and the fry to hide in from predators. The only precautions that owners need to take in caring for floating plants is to make sure they do not touch the lighting fixtures, and that their floating leaves do not get wet under the intense light because, in both cases, the leaves risk getting burned.

Aquarium Plants - Floating - Water Lettuce Examples of floating plants are Pistia stratiotes (Water Lettuce -- see photo), Salvinia auriculata (Butterfly Fern), Riccia, and Java Moss.

Designing Your Aquarium Garden

Before purchasing your first aquatic plant, plan your aquarium garden layout. You can get acquainted with different types of plants by doing some research and by examining them in already established set-ups. Notice the shapes and sizes of both young and mature plants so that you won't have to rearrange your tank when one plant flourishes beyond your expectations.

Here are a few things to remember when choosing your aquarium plants:

  1. Have a little foresight. Remember that rooted plants will have a tendency to extend runners across your tank and uprooting them when they have matured and proliferated will cause some degree of chaos in your aqua-scaping. Note also that some plants grow tall very quickly, so remember that this could later impact on your overall layout.

  2. Think about your fish community. You can also choose your vegetation according to the natural requirements and tendencies of your tank inhabitants. Do you have small or shy fish that need plenty of hiding places? Thick foliage will do the trick. Do you have residents that prefer being "under the shade"? Broad-leaved plants should be part of your layout. Do you have herbivorous fish? Avoid very young plants or soft-leafed ones like the Rotala. Do you have "diggers" or substrate sifters? Cuttings and young rooted plants may not stay anchored very long.

  3. Synchronize habitat requirements. It also helps if you can build a garden of aquatic plants that have similar requirements, along with the other inhabitants of the tank, in terms of lighting, temperature, and water composition. Success with aquatic plants is higher if these factors are put into serious consideration.

  4. Choose healthy stock. It's always best to purchase plants that are already somewhat established. Transporting, as with transplanting, is always a shock and mature plants can withstand the stress better than young ones. When choosing plants from the vendor, pass up in those that look damaged, sick, or dying. Crushed leaves and limp stems are not good signs; it may take some time, if ever, for such plants to recover.

Stretch your creativity. There are hundreds of aquatic plants to choose from. Do not be constrained by what plants are commonly used or what others say are easy to maintain. Explore the beauty of the different colors, the versatility of the various shapes and sizes, and the charm of young, mature, and flowering species. As you experiment on creative ways to layout your garden, look forward to enjoying the marvel of growth, development, and reproduction of these wonderful underwater flora.

See also: Care and Maintenance of Aquarium Plants

Suggested Reading:

Aquarium Designs: Inspired By Nature

A Fishkeeper's Guide to Aquarium Plants

Aquarium Plant Paradise

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