Most folks, upon purchasing an aquarium, experience a two-week honeymoon period when the whole thing looks lovely… after which all of their attractive aquarium plants start losing leaves, turning to mush, or disappearing entirely. It’s around this point that you start to understand the appeal of those neon-colored plastic plants.
Never fear! You, too, can own a healthy planted aquarium without spending a ton of cash or pulling out all of your hair (and the leftover bits from previously-live plants). If your tank is an out-of-the-box kit and you’re not interested in obtaining special light setups, fancy substrates or chemical boosters for your aquarium, incorporate these live plants into your setup. Your fish will thank you.
Java fern (Microsorum pteropus)
Java fern thrives in hard water conditions. It doesn’t like to have its roots buried in the substrate, so don’t surround it with gravel at its base. Instead, attach it to aquarium decorations using clear fishing line. In my own tank, java fern loves driftwood and will happily thrive and spread there once it’s established. It propagates primarily through “pups” – tiny plantlets at the ends of its largest leaves. When they’re ready to be off on their own, a little tug removes them from their parent plant. It will happily float in clumps at the top of your tank until you find a home for it, but be careful that small plantlets don’t clog up your filter intake tubes. Another bonus: most fish leave java fern alone.
Java moss (Vesicularia dubyana)
This versatile plant grows slowly and steadily, adapting to low-light conditions. If you’ve populated your tank with live-bearers (guppies, mollies, swords and platties), you’ll need a place for their fry to hide: it may or may not be news to you, but fish eat their babies. There is no goodwill in an aquarium, and unless you provide them with a good hiding place, you won’t have baby fish for long. Java moss is a low, thick carpet of live greenery for those babies to find a hiding spot. Don’t plant it… just allow it to spread over large rocks and wander where it will. Attach it to a pretty piece of driftwood, if you want to get it started. It prefers to be undisturbed and will happily thrive on neglect.
Sometimes pet stores sell “moss balls” — floating balls of greenery. These may or may not be java moss, even though they are sometimes sold as such. They’re made to resemble Japanese “Marimo balls”, a naturally occurring algae growth – but they’re entirely different things. One is natural algae… the other is either algae or java moss wrapped around a ping pong ball and weighed down with a sinker.
I’ve grown these for years; a few clumps of cryptocoryne have even survived multiple tank breakdowns and moves, although these plants are usually unhappy when their environment experiences a radical change. My favorite varieties are c. wendtii and c. lucens. Both are small, sword-leafed plants that clump together nicely and do well in low-light conditions. They’re slow growers and won’t ever become large enough to fill the empty space in the back of your tank, but that’s not what these are for. Plant cryptocorynes in the front of your tank and they’ll dig deeply into the substrate and give you months — or, in my case, years — of grateful, vibrant life for your trouble. You can divide them, but they tend to be leggy and look best in large groups. Don’t split them up unless you’ve got a fairly large clump to relocate.
These tall, clumping, grass-like plants love light and make a good choice for folks with large aquariums. Plant them in the back where they can hide the cords hanging behind your tank and give it a fully-planted appearance. Find them in straight and corkscrew varieties; the latter make beautiful show plants, especially when you plant two or three together. They’re all perfectly happy in harder water, and will darken to deeper shades of green when exposed to stronger light.
Try this aquarium arrangement for an attractive look and more natural layout: plant tall vallisneria in the back, place java fern around the middle-depth of your tank on driftwood, and grow one or two cryptocoryne varieties in the front (these are your best option for color, too, as red aquarium plants are otherwise tricky to grow, and cryptocorynes are widely available in red and bronze colors). Add some java moss to soften up tank decorations and provide hiding places for small fish, and you’ve got an easy, low-maintenance planted aquarium perfect for the beginner.