Many aquarium hobbyists start out with something like the Tetra 3 Gallon Aquarium Kit (which I own and love) and a couple plastic plants, and things are going great! Maybe they add a few fancy guppies, and now there are fry all over the place! Awesome! Now they are thinking, “Maybe I’ll get some LIVE plants to really jazz this puppy up.” Then they drive over to PetSmartCo® and pick up some dwarf baby tears… and it completely fails. Now that poor hobbyist decides plants are too much trouble and totally not worth it!
I would like to avoid this scenario in the future by putting together a list of 10 relatively easy aquarium plants for beginners. I have picked out these plants because they are pretty forgiving with the amount of light they need, nutrient demands, and ease of planting and trimming. These plants definitely do not need any pressurized CO2 or any other bells and whistles.
Below are simple descriptions and tips for each plant. For more detailed information about aquarium plant care you might want to pick up a copy of Peter Hiscock’s book “Encyclopedia of Aquarium Plants”. I keep a copy within reach of my aquariums, and I’m constantly looking through it for info.
Here we go, from easiest to “least easiest,” my top 10 beginner aquarium plants:
Common Duckweed (Lemna minor)
This plant is so easy to grow, it is considered a nuisance! It is a very common floating plant that is also very small (leaves are approximately 3mm long). In fact it is one of the world’s smallest flowering plants. Duckweed is not picky. It doesn’t require bright lights, and chances are it will get plenty of nutrients from the water in your aquarium. Some fish like goldfish will eat this (surprisingly) nutritious plant. Who doesn’t like free fish food?
There are a couple negative points about this plant. As I mentioned earlier, it is considered by some to be a nuisance plant. This is because once it’s established in your tank, it can be hard to remove completely. If even ONE leaf remains in the water, a whole new colony can grow in a matter of weeks. Another point is this plant can get messy. If you have a Hang-on-Back filter, it is easy for the water flow to push this little plant below the surface, where it can get trapped under other plants and decorations.
It’s not a bad idea to create some kind of floating container to keep this plant under control. Check out this video I made a while back showing how to make one with little investment in time and $$$.
Not only is this plant super easy to grow, it can be found pretty much everywhere! Chances are if you go to a local pond you will find this stuff growing out of control. If you are having trouble finding any at the pond, look for a point where water drains out of the pond into a stream or drain, because it has a tendency to drift with the current. I often see little clumps of duckweed at the drainage end of ponds and lakes.
Water Spangles (Savlinia minima)
Water Spangles is another floating plant that requires little interference from you. It grows very quickly with plenty of light and nutrients. Like Duckweed, all it takes is a single living leaf to spawn a whole new generation of plants.
Water Spangles soak up nutrients at a fast pace to keep up with its rapid growth, so you may need to supplement its nutrition with liquid fertilizers at some point. By that time you will probably be sick of dealing with so much of the stuff! You can easily thin the amount of plants on the surface by scooping them out with a net.
If you live in the southern United States, you can probably find this plant in your local waterway.
I wrote a species profile on this plant, so if you would like more info, check it out.
Hornwort (Ceratophyllum demersum)
Hornwort is another plant commonly found in ponds, lakes, and streams. It has long, needle-like leaves and can be seen gently wafting with the current. This funny plant has no real roots, but can loosely anchor itself if one end is buried in the substrate. It reproduces by simply breaking in half and getting hung up on some debris further down stream.
This plant is easy to care for. Simply throw a piece into your aquarium with moderate lighting, and it’ll do the rest. If all goes well, you will need to trim it regularly. I once pulled a strand six feet long from my 3 gallon cube! Legend has it this plant can grow a foot a day in ideal conditions, and I kind of believe it.
The drawback to this plant is if it doesn’t like the water it’s in, it fails hard. All the leaves will fall off and make a terrible mess. It prefers cooler water, which might explain why it sometimes fails in tropical tanks. I put it in all my aquariums, and so far it’s only failed on me once.
Again, like duckweed, this plant can be found in the wild in many locations, so next time you are down by the lake, take a look.
Java Moss (Taxiphyllum barbeiri)
There are now many different kinds of aquatic mosses available for purchase online and in stores. The one you see most often is Java Moss. This plant easily grows in clumps either free-floating or attached to decorations like driftwood or rocks. It makes a great hiding place for fry and other small creatures, while looking pretty neat. It’s not the fastest growing plant on this list, but it grows fairly quickly and steadily without requiring bright lighting.
If you are seeking a “you do your thing, I’ll do mine” kind of relationship with your plants, this one is good for you. Just throw a clump into the water and it will do fine on its own. Now and then you might pull a chunk out to make some room, but otherwise you’re on easy street.
If you want to add a little work and creativity to the mix, try attaching your new java moss to some decorations. You can use gel super glue or cotton thread to attach the moss to wood, rocks, castles, anything really. Over time the moss will attach itself to the surface and continue to grow, without much interference from you.
Marimo Moss Ball (Aegagropila linnaei)
This one is not technically a plant, but rather a type of algae. You often see these sold in small cups at pet stores. It’s very easy to take care of, and if properly cared for can live for decades. I recently wrote a little species profile on this plant, click here to get more info about this fascinating “plant.”
The only work you’ll have to do with this one is occasionally turn it over and maybe run it under some clean aquarium water. That’s it.
Najas Grass aka Guppy Grass (Najas sp.)
Guppy Grass can either be floated or planted in the substrate. I’ve had more luck allowing it to float than I have planting it, but it’s up to you. Like with Java Moss, it makes a great hiding place for fry. It is easy to propagate. Simply break off a piece. The stem is quite fragile, and the leaves are thin and delicate.
So far I have not encountered any negative points about this plant.
It’s lovely 🙂
Amazon Frogbit (Limnobium laevigatum)
One of my favorite plants. This is another floater that doesn’t require much care. It has lovely, heart-shaped leaves and in the right conditions, long feathery roots. When kept in ponds, it can grow quite large, but in the aquarium setting it will probably get no bigger than a few inches across.
Frogbit is a fast-growing plant that likes moderate to bright lighting. The tricky part is after a while it could become nutrient deficient. This is because it grows so quickly that it soaks up all available nutrients from the water. You may need to add some fertilizer after a time, so unless you are willing to do that, maybe stick with some of the easier plants on this list.
Lastly, the leaves of this plant do not like to be submerged underwater. If they are held under for an extended period of time, they will wither and die. Aquariums with strong surface current may not be the best match for this plant.
Java Fern (Microsorium pteropus)
Java Ferns are hardy plants. They don’t require much light, and most snails and fish won’t feed on healthy leaves. Some varieties can grow quite large, but can be kept small with regular trimming.
I have placed this plant a littler further down the easiness scale because it will grow best when attached to a piece of driftwood or other hard surface. You can attach the rhizome of this plant with gel super glue or cotton thread. After some time the plant’s roots will attach themselves to the surface, holding it in place. You can also allow the plant to simply sit on top of aquarium gravel, but it may take time for the roots to grab a hold of the pebbles. You should not bury the rhizome under the substrate, as it requires water flow to remain healthy. A buried rhizome will likely die, taking the rest of the plant with it.
Anubias (Anubias barteri v. nana)
Anubias are great plants for beginners. They don’t require much light, and their slow growth means they don’t need much in the way of fertilizer. There are a few different species available out there, and they come in different sizes and shapes. I like the “nana” variety, because it stays relatively small. Smaller still is the “nana petite” variety.
The reason why I have it so low on the list is because it needs to be attached to a hard surface to grow well. You can use either gel super glue or cotton thread to attach the rhizome to driftwood, rocks, or other decorations. In time the roots will anchor the plant to the surface and you can remove the string if you like.
Anubias grow slowly compared to the other plants on this list, and you are doing well if you get 1 or 2 new leaves a month. After a while, the rhizome may grow long enough for your to split it into a new plant. Simply cut the rhizome in half, keeping as many leaves on each piece as you can. Then attach the new plant to a piece of wood or stone like the original plant.
Dwarf Sagittaria (Sagittaria subulata)
Dwarf Sagittaria is another hardy plant with long, ribbon-like leaves. It grows fairly quickly and doesn’t require high light. Dwarf Sagittaria gets its name by not growing nearly as big as some other members its genus, which can grow to 6 feet or more! This makes it a good candidate for nano aquariums.
I have this plant at the end of the list because it’s the only one that requires any actual planting in the substrate. This can make it a little difficult, because its buoyant leaves give it a tendency to float, and so it may require some effort to keep it anchored to the bottom until the roots are able to spread. I’ve had luck loosely tying the plant to a small rock to weigh it down. Once the roots have taken hold, it will readily grow and create daughter plants on the ends of long runners.
If growth slows over time, you can add root tabs to the substrate near the plant to give it a boost.
Let me know what you think of this list. What other beginner level plants can you think of?