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Related Articles: Live Plant Tanks 101 Planted aquariums Plants + Discus = WOW!  by Alesia Benedict,

/The Aquarium Gardener Series

The Advantages of Live Aquarium Plants

Bob Fenner

Plastic or real? Which would you rather?

How many uses of live plants can you name? There are many. When you consider what little it takes to grow some of the simple types for all the good they do, it's a mystery why so few American aquarists even try live plants.

Let's review wet thumb horticultures main benefits and offer a few specific hints on which types are best, how to pick them out & keep 'em green.


Behavior Modification:

What do you say to people who have nothing but artificial plants in their home or work place; "How about some plastic air to go along with them?" Would you like nothing but a burping clam, colored rocks and a few phony plants in your environment? Pretty boring and bizarre.

There is nothing like live plants to bring out the natural behavior and beauty in our fishes and invertebrates. Plants provide so much in the way of shade & hiding spaces, reducing aggression and allowing areas for breeding and rearing of young.

Nutrient Cycling:

All fish gurus and aspirants shall be made to memorize a/the nitrogen cycle as it relates to aquaria. Repeat after me: 1) "Fish (& invert.s) excrete ammonia as a primary waste product, 2) This is converted to nitrites (NO2 compounds), 3) Which in step are turned into nitrates (NO3). The last two steps take place mainly by way of aerobic bacteria (can you say the hollowed names Nitrosomonas and Nitrobacter?)"... Where do these helpful microbes come from? Your live plants if you have some. Otherwise you have to wait longer to establish this "holy grail" in your gravel, et al. from other sources.

Algae Control:

Where do fish waste nutrients like those nitrates you're making end up? Maybe in chemical filtrants like carbon, perhaps diluted by your conscientious frequent partial water changes; but more likely than not as excess algae growth. Who can blame the algae? All that food, light, space and no pesky plants to compete with. Now get this; You don't need algicides or clarifiers for your aquarium or fish bowl. With just a small amount of live plant material floating and breaking the waters surface, you can be rid of most algae and a whole lot of other aquarium maintenance. This is simple and inexpensive.


I remember being a fussy eater as a child, refusing to eat my "greens". "Eskimos don't even have vegetables; so why do I have to eat them?", I'd whine. "Yes they do", mom would tell me, "they eat iceberg lettuce". The story romaines the same. Almost all fishes consume plant matter given the opportunity. What better way is there to provide it than to have some growing right in their tank?

Beauty:Have you ever seen a well-planted aquarium up close and personal? They're gorgeous. In many places in the world, Mid-Europe & Japan among others, freshwater fishes are more of a backdrop or afterthought to aquatic horticulture. There are even whole stores devoted to Aquatic Plants. Live plants are sought not just for the many important things they do for captive systems, but for their glamour.

Okay, Are You Sold Yet?

Most everyone agrees that live plants are a good idea. Trouble is, where do you get ones that will do okay in your tank? Turns out, just like with fishes, there is a range of adaptability of live plants. There several hundred species and cultivars of live plants suitable for captive systems.

For our discussion here, let's talk up just a few varieties that do well under the general wide range of water, light and nutrient conditions often encountered. These plants will grow for you given that you start with decent specimens, provide regular lighting and don't fool with them continuously; even if you have undergravel filters, 'bad' water, plastic coated gravel...

The Best Aquarium Plants for Everyone:

Watersprite (Ceratopteris cornutus (thalictroides); try saying that ten times fast) is my all-time favorite. Honestly, just throw Watersprite in and leave it alone. You can use this sure fire winner as a surface plant or planted in the gravel; do have some free floating.

Vallisneria species, genus Vallisneria are tall luxurious forms perfect for making tree-like backgrounds for your aquarium. Giant and American val are true giants growing a few feet tall. There are varieties called torted, corkscrew, or twisted val that resemble a true emerald green corkscrew. This genus readily reproduces by sending out runners at their base.

The Arrowheads, genus Sagittaria are similar to the Vallisneria above. They come in short (4-6 inch) to taller species.

The many types of "bunch plants" offered seasonally in the trade. Make sure you get a tropical species (e.g. the foxtail, Myriophyllum brasiliense versus the colder water European milfoil, M. spicatum) when shopping for these plants. Many of the "anacharis's offered (Egeria, Elodea, et al.) do not do well in hot water. The point is well made; get cold water plants for cold water systems and warm water ones for tropical tanks.

One brief note regarding the nefarious practice of selling 'house' and 'bog' plants (and worse) in the trade. There are several types of plants offered to aquarists that just don't live underwater. How to avoid these? Trust your retailer, find another, or read up.

These are, of course only a brief smattering of what's available. If your favorite Editor will allow, we'll continue this series with much more in depth pieces on topics and types of plants in ensuing articles.

Finish: The Big Picture:

Overall, aquatic plants aid in stabilizing a system and keeping it that way. If your tank or fish bowls chemistry is way off, plants will help condition it, bringing it back toward center.

Plants provide habitat, food, reduce aggression, and hey, they're beautiful and fun to grow. Plastic plants may do a lot of this, and live plants are not absolutely necessary; but having some live plant material in your system will greatly add to your success as an aquarist and the health and happiness of your livestock.

Bibliography/Further Reading:


Arnold, Larry. 1988. Anyone Can Grow Plants. Fish Tales 2/88.

Barnes, Doris. 1956. Aquarium Gold. TFH 11,12/56.

Fenner, Bob & John G. Pitcairn. 1989. Retailing Aquarium Plants: 4 Part 1: Rationale, Buying Keeping; Part 2: Maintenance & Merchandising; Part 3: A Good Selection. Pet Dealer 9,10,11/89.

James, Barry. 1986. A Fishkeeper's Guide to Aquarium Plants. Salamander Books, Tetra Press.

Kowite, William J. 1981. Plants in the Aquarium. FAMA 9/81.

Osborne, Kevin. 1992. Hands Off, Planted Aquariums---Revisited. FAMA 7/92.

Rainey, Arthur D. Jr. 1991. Live Plants, To Increase Customer Demand for Plants, Emphasize Their Beauty and Benefits. Pet Age 4/91.

Roe, Colin D. 1967. A Manual of Aquarium Plants (a classic). Shirley Aquatics Ltd., Shirley, Solihull, England.

Seidner, Sam. 1953. On the Function of Plants in the Aquarium TFH 1:4/53.

Tepoot, Pablo. 1998. Aquarium Plants. The Practical Guide. New Life Publications. Homestead, FL. 216pp. 

Watson, Thomas T. 1983. Beginning with Living Plants. T.F.H. 8/83.


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