by Tom Sarac

Live aquatic plants have much to offer to anyone keeping an aquarium. There are many different species to choose from, from very easy to very difficult to care for. Regardless of the hardiness of a plant, one thing is for certain, your aquarium is better off with them than without them.

Choosing suitable species always starts with knowing which fish you will be keeping and the basic water chemistry of your water: pH, KH and GH. There are a number of very hardy aquatic plants that can tolerate a wide variety of both water chemistry and lighting conditions, and are thus suitable for almost any aquarium. Many of these species do well with a liquid plant food supplement and grow in low light conditions.

The following is a short list of our top picks for tough aquatic plants that can make the difference between a great looking aquarium and an average one:

Anubias barteri var. nana:

Originating from Africa, this dwarf Anubias varietal features striking dark green leaves. It doesn’t require substrate to grow in: simply anchoring it to either stones or pieces of driftwood is sufficient. It sends out its roots and tenaciously creeps along hard surfaces, gripping with its tough, hardy root system. Anubias barteria var. nana is a particularly durable and undemanding plant, as its leaves are hard and capable of withstanding tougher cichlids, snails and some suckermouth catfish.

We rank this plant as number one in terms of toughness, due to it being low light level capable and its preference for growing on hard surfaces. No nutrient input is required – the plant does not require feeding. Stained, natural-looking water conditions do not phase it: we have seen it growing, slowly but surely, in plain room light with no overhead lighting source.

Cryptocoryne willisii:

Originating from Sri Lanka, Cryptocoryne willisii is a hardy plant that grows in thick groupings with a lovely dark olive green tone to its leaves. The substantial root mass does well in sand, particularly if it contains some clay, and in aquarium soil-based plant substrates. Like other Cryptocoryne species, C. willisii spreads by sending out runners. This plant prefers regular, small water changes, as large water changes and disruption to its roots can impair growth rates and cause partial die offs.

Cryptocoryne willisii thrives in lower light levels and can reach heights of about 10 – 20 cm (4 – 8”). It is best suited for use in the foreground and midground of aquariums.

Echinodorus bleheri:

Commonly known as the Amazon sword plant, Echinodorus bleheri is a classic centerpiece plant that grows to be quite large and requires plenty of space. The species features large, broad leaves with stalks, sometimes as many as 30 to 40 on a single specimen. Originating from South America, E. bleheri grows in low to medium light levels and is capable of extracting most of its nutrients from the substrate.

It is recommended to prune this plant quite regularly: neatly cutting off the stalks of leaves that start to die off will direct the plant’s energy towards healthy leaves. It is important to ensure you do not bury the crown of the plant in the substrate when planting.

Ceratophyllum demersum:

Commonly known as Hornwort, this rootless plant is one of the best floating plants, offering sanctuary to shy species of fish and providing hiding spots for baby fish.

Hornwort spreads and grows by developing side shoots, which can attain lengths of 30 cm (12”) or more. If left floating at the surface, this plant can also help to create subdued lighting conditions preferred by many fish and to help to control algae.

Vallisneria gigantea:

Ideal for large aquariums, Vallisneria gigantea features long, ribbon-like reddish-brown to dark green leaves. Unlike most plant species, all Vallisneria species are capable of obtaining their carbon requirements from existing carbonates in water, and as such do well in harder water rich in carbonate content, with alkaline pH levels. Fine gravel or coarse sand is preferred for the strong rooting system of V. gigantea, which spreads quickly by sending out runners when conditions are ideal. Strong lighting is not necessary: moderate levels of light are sufficient.

Gigantea can grow to over 60 cm (24”) in length and is best when grown in the background of large, tall aquariums. Avoid burying the white part of the crown in the substrate: only the roots should be submerged. This species of Vallisneria is quite hardy and resistant and is an excellent choice for beginner aquarists and aquariums with hard, alkaline water conditions.

Vesicularia dubyana:

The ubiquitous Java moss, this highly adaptive plant anchors to any number of solid surfaces in your aquarium. In general, a choice piece of driftwood or specific decorative rocks are selected to initially attach the moss to, after which it is allowed to spread as desired. Plastic tie wraps, clips, monofilament fishing line and other inert objects can be used to anchor down clumps of Java moss.

Low to mid-level light is preferred by this plant. Once Java moss starts to spread, it will require regular trimming in order to maintain the look you wish to create. This unique plant species also acts as a filter, trapping debris and organic detritus for easy removal.

Microsorum pteropus:

Java fern is a tough plant from Southeast Asia that grows on rocks, driftwood, and other surfaces. Like Anubias spp., Microsorum pteropus is planted by simply anchoring the specimen down using plastic tie wraps, clips, monofilament fishing line, etc. Afterwards, all that’s required is patience, as the plant grows quite slowly.

Java fern does well in low to moderate lighting and tolerates natural tea colored water very well.

These seven live aquatic plants are excellent choices for beginners or for aquarists that are looking for low maintenance, hardy plant species. Remember, your aquarium is always better with live plants than without them!