Aquascaping 101: The Plants

An introduction to the plants available for your underwater garden.

The last time I had a fish tank, just about the only aquascaping plants available were tape weed or val (Vallisneria spiralis), hornwort (Ceratophyllum demersum) and Amazon sword (Echinodorus cordifolius)! Nowadays there are dozens if not hundreds of different species available locally, while the three from the old days have all now been declared invasive! There are two main groups of plants in terms of aquascaping: those that grow in the soil or substrate (planted) and those that grow attached to rocks or wood (epiphytes). To get a handle on which plants are most appropriate for beginners to aquascaping, we got in touch with two experts in the field, Mark Naidoo from Aquazon (www.aquazon.co.za) and Hiten Goolab from Epic Aquatics (www.epicaquatics.net) and ADA South Africa (www.adasouthafrica.co.za).


Aquuascaping with Epiphytes

Ephiphytes grow attached to rock or wood. To attach them, aquascapers often use cotton thread or even superglue gel to hold them in place until their roots get a grip. Because they are attached to something, the substrate is not important for these plants although you will need to use a liquid fertiliser in the water column.

Java fern (Microsorum pteropus)

One of the most common plants in the aquarium trade today, Java fern hails from South-East Asia. Relatively slow growing, Java fern is easy to grow and isn’t too fussy when it comes to water parameters. Hiten and Mark both recommend Java fern, and currently one of Mark’s favourite plants is Java fern ‘Trident’, a variant that produces narrow three-lobed leaves that actually grow at an angle towards the ground. “Java fern is so resilient and requires no special substrates or care,” he says. “It can also be easily propagated by splitting the rhizomes or attaching the plantlets that form on mature leaves.”

Cameroon moss (Plagiochilaceae ‘Cameroon’)

Mosses are another firm favourite of Mark’s, and he particularly loves Cameroon moss, flame moss and Christmas moss. “Aquatic mosses are so adaptable and easy to use,” he says. “As an attaching plant they require no special care and thrive in most conditions. We find that they do prefer slightly cooler water. You can use their different growth patterns and forms to easily create really unique scapes.” Cameroon moss is not as easy to get hold of as the very common Java moss (a good alternative), but it’s worth spending a bit of time looking for it. The leaves are larger than most aquatic mosses, and it almost looks like the fronds of a fern. It grows relatively slowly but is hardy and tough, and quite forgiving of a variety of conditions. Anubias barteri var. nana According to Mark, “There are a number of different forms and varieties of Anubias available, but they are all hardy and are generally left alone by fish. Miniature varieties, like Anubias barteri var. nana ‘Bonsai’ (sometimes called ‘Petite’) are readily available and are great for nano-type (small) aquascapes.”

Anubias are beautiful aquarium pants from central Africa, and we particularly love the small ‘Bonsai’ varieties. As with most members of the genus, they only need low light levels, they don’t need supplemental CO2 and they are easy to care for. When attached to a nice piece of driftwood or a shapely rock, these are lovely and undemanding specimen plants. They can be easily propagated by rhizome separation, and some will even flower underwater. While ‘Nana’ reaches about 10cm in height, ‘Bonsai’ is limited to about 5cm in height with very small leaves.

Planted Aquascaping Plants

Hygrophila pinnatifida

This beautiful plant is a newcomer to the aquarium industry, originating in India. It is also Hiten’s favourite at the moment: “I love this plant. It can be planted in the substrate or attached to rocks or wood. The colours are amazing, as is the texture. As with most plants, the colour depends on your lighting, substrate, CO2 and the fertilisers you use.” H. pinnatifida has fern-like leaves that have a brownish surface and a burgundy underside. It grows at a moderate pace and can reach 15 – 40cm in height and 10 – 20cm wide. It really is a very beautiful plant.

Cryptocoryne wendtii

Cryptocoryne wendtii is a common and widely used aquarium plant that can be had in a number of different varieties with different colour leaves, from green to brown and red. Leaf texture and size also varies, from 10cm leaves through to huge 45cm-long leaves. It can cope with high or low levels of light and grows well without CO2, although it will be more vigorous with supplemental CO2. Water conditions do need to be stable, and Cryptocoryne wendtii will probably ‘melt’ when introduced to your aquarium, only to resprout fairly soon. So don’t despair if you think your new ‘crypt’ has given up the ghost – be patient. 


Both Mark and Hiten are keen on Echinodorus or ‘Amazon swords’ (but not the invasive species!). This is where the common name can be confusing and do lovely plants an injustice when they are tarred with the same brush. There are a number of other varieties also available locally. We love Echinodorus  ‘Ozelot Red’ and E. ‘Ozelot Green’, both of which reach about 20cm in height and spread (although they can get bigger in certain conditions). While both have blotches of colour on their leaves, ‘Ozelot Red’ obviously has red blotches while ‘Ozelot Green’ has beautiful dark green blotches. They are easy to grow with no tricky requirements, although they will need fertiliser tablets placed near their roots regularly, and will do better in a good-quality substrate like the ADA systems.

There are many other aquascaping plants that are recommended for the beginner, such as dwarf baby tears and Ludwigia ‘Rubin’, Hygrophilla angustifolia , Ludwigia repens and water sprite. Have a look on the Epic Aquatics or Aquazon websites and get in touch with them for more advice. Epic Aquatics also has a very informative plant brochure that they will be happy to email you.

Just as with buying garden plants, it is your responsibility to ensure that you don’t buy any invasive aliens. Buying from a responsible, well-known and knowledgeable supplier is the best way to do this.
The Gardener