» Posted by on Mar 18, 2016 in Blog, Jenn | Comments Off on Top 10 Low-Light Plants for Beginners

Java fern mother plant
A huge java fern “mother plant”

Top 10 Low-Light Plants for Beginners

Jennifer Ruivo

Java Fern

If you have the opposite of a green thumb and kill every plant you touch, try Java ferns. These are incredibly hardy plants that can survive extreme neglect. In fact, you could remove all of the leaves and have no problem, as long as there’s a healthy rhizome (the thick horizontal “trunk” of the plant). The fern will simply grow back new leaves, and the leaves you removed will start growing baby java ferns complete with roots! Speaking of the rhizome, when “planting” the Java fern, only plant the roots, not the rhizome! The lack of water flow under substrate can cause rotting. Alternatively, don’t even plant the Java fern! You can just tie the rhizome and roots to driftwood or rocks until the plant grabs hold. Either use transparent fishing line or dissolvable thread for aesthetics. Under favorable conditions, the Java fern grows steadily and new growth can be easily spotted as translucent leaf tips.


A pile of happy marimo
A pile of happy marimo


This is my favorite “plant” on this list! Marimo, or Japanese Moss Balls, are actually spherical clumps of a type of algae called cladophora. They are very hardy, due to the conditions of their native home, which are deep lakes in Japan. Marimo are unbothered by dim light and cold water, and will tolerate a small amount of salt in their water. The only downside to them is their slow growth. A marimo may grow only half a centimeter per year! But look on the bright side: no trimming! Marimo also appreciate being moved or rolled around once a while. It helps them stay spherical. If they get out of round, don’t worry! Just pat them back into shape in your hands like a meatball. Combine with white sand and large stones for a zen look.



Anubias with a healthy rhizome
Anubias with a healthy rhizome


This is another plant that grows from a rhizome which should remain uncovered. Anubias are almost as hardy as Java ferns but have darker, smoother, and rounder leaves. If you think your anubias is growing slowly, you’re right. These plants are notorious for how slowly they grow. I like to think of them as the sloth of the aquatic plant world, as they also move so slowly that algae can grow on them. If that’s the case, gently wipe the leaves or trim ones that are too far gone. Propagate by cutting the rhizome, assuring at least one leaf per section.





Aquascape using tiger lotus lilies

Nymphaea Lilies

The smaller relative of water lilies found in ponds and lakes, dwarf lilies are an interesting low light plant. Usually they’re found as not-yet-sprouted bulbs. Plant them halfway into the substrate, root end down, at an angle. You’ll soon see their characteristic wide leaves on thin stems begin to erupt from the bulb. Let the leaves reach the surface of the water to increase its access to CO2, which will quicken its growth. Fish appreciate the shadows of the leaves, which in the wild provide shelter from piscivorous (fish-eating) birds. These plants are available in many different varieties, but red dwarf tiger lotus is my favorite.




Cryptocoryne wendtii “green”


My second favorite plant on this list, particularly Cryptocoryne wendtii “red.” Most red plants can only be kept in high-fertilizer, high-light set-ups, so this is a chance to bring color into a low-tech set-up. The stems and bottoms of the leaves on this plant are a dark scarlet. Unlike many other plants on this list, plant it like you would a terrestrial plant, with its roots in the substrate. When you first introduce a crypt into your tank you may notice something called “crypt melt,” which is when the leaves of this plant start softening and dissolving. Mitigate this by acclimating the plant like you would a fish and trimming off any leaves that begin to melt. Don’t worry too much; crypts will almost always recover from crypt melt, and once they do they’ll start spreading and growing like a weed! There’s no need to buy more than one crypt if you have patience; this plant propagates itself quickly by growing more plants along its roots. Once they’re large enough to have their own roots, you can sever the connection to the original plant and replant the young one somewhere else, or just leave them alone to form a thicket. If you want them to really thrive, tuck a fertilizing root tab into the substrate under the roots.


Wild eleocharis growing emersed



Eleocharis is also known as giant hairgrass, as opposed to the related dwarf hairgrass, which grows only a few inches tall. The appearance of this plant is all in the name: Very tall, thin grass-like leaf-less stems. While dwarf hairgrass demands high light, giant hairgrass is less picky. How giant does giant hairgrass get? It depends on the light, growing up to 36” in low light as it tries to reach the sun, and remaining as short as 8” in high light. In tanks shorter than 36”, it will drape itself artistically across the surface of the water. If the height of the grass bothers you, make sure you trim the longest strands at their base, as trimming off the tip causes that particular spike to die back and become brown. Giant hairgrass grows in a similar fashion to cryptocorynes, with roots in the substrate and propagating by runners.



Najas gracillima, a close relative ofN. guadalupensis


Guppy Grass

Najas guadalupensis may be a bit challenging to find but it’s an incredibly easy plant to grow. It will grow with minimal light and no fertilizer (except fish waste) from airy strands into thick mats that can either float or be planted. If you’re looking for a wild and untamed look in your aquarium, this is a great plant for you, but if you’re wanting a more English garden, symmetrical, trimmed look, then you’ll have to a lot of removal to do. This plant grows like a weed and under good conditions can easily take over your tank. On the bright side, that means it competes well for nutrients with algae and can help prevent outbreaks.



Emersed flowering Brazilian Pennywort

Brazilian Pennywort


This is probably the most versatile plant on this list. Pennywort can be planted and trimmed down to form an ethereal hedge, left alone to grow up to cover the surface like lilypads, or just left floating like clouds. They will grow roots from nodes along the stalk that, though underwater, are referred to as “aerial roots.” These roots can provide hiding places for fry or small, timid fish. Be careful when handling this plant, as the stem can be fragile. However, if the stem snaps you’ll likely just end up with two healthy plants. The biggest problem with pennywort is how quickly it can grow! It may end up blocking light from non-floating plants or taking all the nutrients from the water column. Remove excess pennywort and let it dry out completely (I’m talking crunchy!) before throwing it out to prevent it from going feral in lakes and ponds.


Floating salvinia. Check out thehydrophobic hairs.



Salvinia is a great example of why scientific names are important. I’ve seen it labeled as frogbit, duckweed, water lettuce, and water hyacinth, but each of those names is applied to at least one other plant too! So for this article, I’ll be talking about Salvinia natans. It’s a cute little floating plant with interesting roots that branch out in a feathery manner. Just like the Brazilian pennywort, the roots are a great hiding spot for small fish. In low light this plant will do fine, slowly growing, but under high light you’ll quickly realize how it’s become invasive in some areas after scooping out a cup of extra plants every week. Something neat about this plant is the hydrophobic nature of the top of the leaves. If the plant is pushed underwater by a filter output (or a curious aquarist) you can see the silvery sheen of trapped air held by tiny hairs on the leaf’s surface.




Gorgeous aquascape using driftwood and

java moss. Source


Java Moss

And now for my least favorite plant on this list. While gorgeous and easy to grow, I’m just not dexterous enough to get Java Moss going. Unless you want it to float, Java moss must at first be tied down to a rock or piece of wood or ornament until it can grab on, and unlike Java fern there’s no solid rhizome to grab easily. However, if you are less clumsy than a fiddler crab you should be able to do this, and then it’s easy street! (Another option is buying pre-made moss mats where the moss is already secured onto a mesh.) Once secured, Java moss will spread like a weedy carpet across anything it can reach, which can lead to stunning pieces of art like underwater trees and mossy cliffs! Java moss also provides a great hiding place for fry and small fish and shrimp love to pick microscopic food off of its fronds. Some of the most beautiful aquascapes use Java moss and red shrimp for a wonderful color contrast.


Most of these plants are always available at Absolutely Fish. Stop in and check them out, and if you have any questions just ask for me!


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