Live Plants in Aquariums are Essential to well Balanced Aquariums

Why do freshwater fish need live plants for long life, and humane living conditions? Plants are not simple decorations, not just pleasing to the eye of the human observer, live plants are essential to a complete scientific balance of the modern aquarium.

The majority of freshwater community aquarium fish have shown definite preference for live aquarium plants in countless scientific tests over the decades. In a well planted aquarium, fish can find shade from glaring light, privacy from things outside of the tank that startle them and a natural safety in times of stress.

Live plants allow different species startled by larger or aggressive tank mates to hide, or to evade the over eager potential breeding partner with some of the more aggressive species. With shoaling fish, plants give the group the currents and eddies they instinctively seek out in the wild.

When breeding many species, live aquarium plants are essential surfaces for the deposit and fertilization of eggs. Live aquarium plants have natural infusoria and other essential algae clinging to them or growing from them that feed the newborn fry of many species.

In short, live aquarium plants are essential in the creation of a natural or close to natural environment for most freshwater aquarium fish.

Care and Needs of Freshwater Aquarium Plants

Planted aquaium tips and tricks
Thomas R. Reich, PhD

Live aquarium plants need 3 basic things for maximum health of the plants and positive effects on a well managed community aquarium.


  1. Sufficient lighting to not only simulate the good properties of the sun but penetrate to the depth of the water in the tank itself. The deeper the tank, the stronger the lighting system needed.
  2. The proper substrate, large gravel is not the best medium to keep live plants anchored and provide fertile area for root growth. Plants are an essential part of the process of breaking down fish waste, however the right substrate is essential. Find gravel, specially designed terracotta gravel or sand works best for a live plant environment. Never use dirt or loam soil of any kind in a freshwater community aquarium environment. “Dirt” or “pond mud” can breed harmful bacteria unless sterilized, and if sterilized, the loam is of little or no use to plants.
  3. Sufficient food for the live aquarium plants. A well established freshwater aquarium will have some nutrients in the substrate. A new aquarium must be supplemented with live aquarium plant food which is widely available. Even well established aquariums should be supplemented with extra nutrients for maximum benefit to the community aquarium as a whole.

    Propagation of Live Aquarium Plants, How do they multiply?

    Propigation of live aquarium plants
    Thomas R. Reich, PhD

     Propagation within most aquatic plants are through several primary methods found within all the plant world in nature. Surprisingly however, few true aquatic plants propagate with seeds, fewer still use bulbs.


    1) Vallisneria and other Ground Cover Plants

    Propigation of aquarium plants through runners
    Thomas R. Reich, PhD

    Vallisneria and other ground cover plants, send out “runners” which develop into new rooted separate plants. These new plants can be broken off as they mature and moved to another location in the tank, or another aquarium entirely as a new fully viable plant, which is not capable of sending out new “runners”.

    These true aquatic plants are great for ground cover, and should be placed in the rear of the aquarium, since most species grow tall. It must be noted that these “true aquatic” plants can not tolerate a dry condition, do not remove them from the aquarium and allow them to dry out, it will severely damage or kill them. Even moving from aquarium to aquarium or from store to home aquarium should be done in a container of water, damage from open air happens quickly out of water and is at a minimum, damaging and makes plants unattractive for weeks.


    2) Myriophyllum, Ludwigia and Acorus – the Node Propagators

    aquarium plants that multiply with node cuttings
    Thomas R. Reich, PhD

    Myriophyllum, Ludwigia and Acorus as well as many other plants commonly found in aquarium stores are node propagators, or cutting propagators. Their long stringy branches easily break off and float on the surface of the aquarium.

    These loose branches can be gathered in a small bunch, anchored with a lead weight strip and planted firmly in the substrate; the new “clump” of branches will soon root and become a new complete plant braking off branches of its own. When a branch brakes off, usually 2 or 3 new branches will grow out from the leaf nodes, making the plant thicker each time it is broken or actually clipped. If you choose to clip the plant, cut the branch close to next set of leaves, roots grow from the node where the leaf connects to the branch.

    Bulbs dried from some Aquatic Pplants

    aquarium plants that propigate with bulbs
    Thomas R. Reich, PhD

    Bulbs can be dried from some aquarium plants, and planted. dry and seemingly dead, under the substrate. Once planted and underwater, these “bulbs” will quickly sprout and grow very fast under the right conditions. The Madagascar Lace is a prime example of this type of aquatic plant.  These plants, also available in aquarium stores from time to time, are easy to grow and very attractive.

    One drawback is they have a definite season, they will grow and put out leaf after leaf from the base at a central core, until finally they produce a flower of sorts in the center if the core. Once a “flower” has been produced, the plant will go into decline and seem to die. The plant has not died, it is dormant, in nature it would be the dry season and this is how it stores its life until the next rainy season. 

    When you see this type of plant go into decline remove the “bulb” from the aquarium, sometimes there will now be 2 or 3 bulbs when you dig it up from the substrate. Dry it and keep it in a cool dark place for at least 3 months.  If there are 2 or 3 distinct bulbs, separate them, if only one that is normal as well, it is now larger than the original planted many months ago and will grow a larger plant until it splits into 2 or 3 “bulbs” next season. Now plant the “bulbs” the same way you did it originally and observe the cycle again.


    Aquatic Plants that Propagate by Seed

    aquatic plants that propigate by seed
    Thomas R. Reich, PhD

    Some aquatic plants propagate by seed, but most are not true aquatics. Some underwater plants, like the Amazon Sword Plant in its many varieties, can grow out of the water or under the water. As with the “bulb” type plants, this is nature’s way of living through a cycle of wet and dry seasons.

    Hobbyists should disregard attempts to grow these plants from seeds that eventually appear after a flowering stage. The seeds of these dual condition plants are produced in the dry phase of nature’s cycle and are not easy to reproduce out of nature. However most of these aquatic plants send runners as in the example #1, propagation is easiest with this method for aquarium hobbyists.  


    5) Natures “Weeds” that Grow both out of Water and Under Water

    aquarium plants that change
    Thomas R. Reich, PhD

    Natures “weeds” that grow both out of water and under water but look entirely different when grown under water. Again, these plants are simple adapting to natures wet and dry seasons. Many of these plants, like the “Water Wisteria” are from the Florida Everglades, and are propagated for aquariums by aquatic nurseries.

    Often when buying this plant in stores it will have solid leaves and a firm thick appearance, this is how it grows out of water. When planted under water, an amazing change takes place; the leaves grow much wider and are totally laced in beautiful flowing clumps. This type of plant propagates in much the same way as example #2 from branches planted in the substrate. 


    6) In Europe, Aquarists let these Plants Grow out of the top if the Aquarium

    aquarium plants that grow in and out of water
    Thomas R. Reich. PhD

    In Europe, aquarists let these particular plants grow out of the top if the water, and again adjust to open air. These plants, such as “Water Wisteria” and “Amazon Sword Plant” will grow up towards lights hanging 1 or 2 feet above the aquarium, and revert to their “dry air” form.

    This presents an interesting look with the “under water form” of the plant within the aquarium, and the “dry season” version of the plant thriving above the tank itself. Though this is not a popular type of aquarium style in the United States and Canada, it is worth a look.

    For more information check out our Twitter, Facebook and Pinterest and feel free to ask questions by clicking here. If you encounter problems, come back to and I will do my best to help your aquarium thrive. I love fish and I want you to grow with the hobby. I want you to have all the information at your fingertips to create a happy healthy aquarium community for you and your family.

Live aquatic plants belong in home aquariums, and the conditions that make aquarium plants grow and thrive, make aquarium fish happy and healthy as well. Good basics are all that is needed, proper lighting, substrate, controlled temperature and healthy water conditions. To some hobbyists, live aquatic plants are almost as interesting as the fish in the aquarium. And to a select few hobbyists, those who create whole aquacultures and ecosystems for their planted aquariums, the fish are merely the decoration!

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