Aquarium Bulb Plants

Aquarium Bulb Plants

When someone mentions bulb plants it's natural to think of flowers or vegetables. However, there are many aquatic bulbs, and in this post we'll learn what's available to the planted tank enthusiast and how to keep them.

As with other aquatic plants, a good, nutrient rich substrate is vital to keeping bulb plants long term. Bulb plants store their nutrition in the bulb or corn and use it for growth. A good planted tank substrate provides the minerals (like iron and potassium) to keep the plant fed. Like all plants they prefer a warmed substrate. Low wattage cable heaters are available that pull nutrient rich warm water down to the roots, giving them circulation and can help eliminate dead spots.

Many do well in 2 watts per gallon of full spectrum light. All will do well in 4 wpg or even five, and some must have that bright light to thrive. Carbon Dioxide injection can be used, but some species grow spectacularly with or without it. Some are among the easiest plants to grow, some are among the most difficult aquatic plants to have success with. Thus, there's a bulb plant for nearly anyone.

Now some species

Aponogetons, from the African island of Madagascar and Southeast Asia, run the gamut from among the easiest plants to grow to among the most difficult to keep. Aponogetons' bulbs are long and cylindrical with two narrow ends. Leaves sprout from one or occasionally both ends. All of them keep to their natural rhythm of steady and in some species of explosive growth and look gorgeous for many months, then leaf production ceases, the plant may appear to die back as leaf production slows down and may stop. Old leaves may start to die. If conditions are good, new leaves will sprout and grow. In this Genus the rest period lasts month to six weeks, but nearly all of them insist on that rest period. Due to man-made hybridizing, the rest period isn't as severe as it once was, where the whole bulb was removed when the plant diminished, put in a jar with wet, cold sand and left in a cool dark place for six weeks, only returning it to the tank when growth started. Aponogetons were among the 'mystery bulbs' that were sold in a package near department store pet areas. A good number were Aponogeton species, though some were water lilies.

One of my personal favorite aquatic plants is A. ulvaceus of Madagascar. Twenty-inch long, almost 2 inch wide smooth, shiny, undulating bright green leaves, with greens, russets and golds in bright light, typify this plant. This gorgeous plant when happy grows like mad, shooting out leaf after leaf and becoming a dominant force in the aquarium. Each plant produces two flower spikes, but fertilization for seed production is only possible if there's another ulvaceus in the tank; use a soft brush to transfer pollen from one plant to another.

As with all Aponogetons, ulvaceus corn should be laid on top of the gravel until growth ensues. Wait until several leaves and roots form before gently pushing the corn under the gravel.

On the other end as far as difficulty goes is a plant of almost mythical proportions; the Madagascar Lace Plant (A. madagascariensis). Some keepers have very little trouble with this plant, some give it up in despair. According to Innes (Exotic Aquarium Fishes, 15th Edition, 1953), the plant grows very well in the hard and alkaline waters of New England, but does just as well growing outdoors in half barrels of oak, which are of course acidic.

What makes this plant so popular is its leaves; they are skeletonized. Only visible are the veins; there is no leaf flesh between them. Those odd leaves reach up to 25 inches (usually much smaller) and puts up a fuzzy yellow flower when really happy.

There are geographical differences in the width of the leaf, depending on where the original wild parent plant came from. In some it is quite narrow, in others, reaching the width of an ulvaceus leaf.

Peat extracts, either in liquid form or granular in canister filters, is necessary with this plant. They prefer filtered light; it can be 4 watts per gallon but this plant needs to be shaded where the light is diffused. Most important is weekly water changes, up to 75 percent. It prefers water in the mid 70's, and it should be soft; less than 10 degrees of hardness.

The Madagascar Lace Plant, due to its difficulty, hasn't been hybridized, so the old-fashioned wait period must be ensured if an aquariast wishes to keep this plant for years (like all Aponogetons, they are long lived). The water should be slowly lowered over a week to 66 and held there for two months. When growth returns, the temperature should be slowly raised over a week to its normal temperature. Then you can move it back to the warm show tank and very, very carefully replant it.

A. madagascariensis's leaves must be kept free of algae and debris. Fish such as a troupe of Otocinclus should be employed to keep the leaves clear.
One who keeps the Madagascar Lace Plant successfully long term should be justly proud.

Strongly stemmed, hammered, medium green leaves typify A. boivinianus, another Madagascar species. Its bulb is truly bulb-shaped, with leaves coming out of the top. A lusty plant that grows surprisingly rapidly, boivinianus prefers space to grow; it doesn't do well in a heavily-planted tank. The character of the leaves - the hammered, spear -shaped look and the translucent green, makes this plant easy to ID. It prefers and does best in very bright light, and can flower and bear fruit in the aquarium. It commonly reaches 20 inches tall, and has no other special requirements other than a good substrate and bright light.

One of the most commonly available and most hybridized species is A. crispus of Sri Lanka (Ceylon). A smaller species, crispus has crinkled-edged, oblong lancelet leaves about a foot tall. Because its been crossed with several species of Aponogeton, the true crispus isn't easy to find as it once was. Only the flower, which it does occasionally appear in the aquarium, can reveal its true identity.

No matter. Other than good light (3 or 4 WPG is preferred) and a good substrate, crispus needs little else, and will produce many leaves rapidly when it settles in. A wait period isn't as needed as it once was, but the cool sand in a dark place when growth stops may improve its life span. I haven't given my plants a wait period, and they have grown perfectly for years in my tanks.

If the leaves grow taller and thinner and reach the top of the tank, the lighting is insufficient. Otherwise, crispus is one of the easiest of the Genus to grow.
From India and the Malay Peninsula comes A. undulatus. The species name gives a clue; the leaves undulate. They are middle green, spear shaped, and 10 inches tall, and are one of the few Aponogetons which is easy to propagate. A mature plant produces little miniatures of itself, complete with bulbs, around its rootstock. When established, they can be removed and replanted.

The leaves have odd translucent areas, and are not indicative of a problem. Like all Aponogetons, it likes temps in the mid-to upper 70's. Undulatus grows very well, and poses no problems for the grower. No rest period is needed. A lovely plant, undulatus is usually the plant hybridized with crispus, but is more common in its natural form.

One of the most beautiful of the bulb plants as well as one of the most difficult to grow is the Orchid Lily - Barclaya longifolia of Myamar, Thailand, Indochina and Eastern Africa.

Barclaya must have shaded areas and is very demanding. It needs temps between 75 and 82 degrees, a highly-enriched substrate equipped with a cable heater. Most failures occur when the sub-surface heater is absent. A difference of just a few degrees between the gravel and bulk water can spell doom for this plant. It needs plenty of space, soft water and bright light when it starts growing. High Oxygen levels can disintegrate it.

Is the plant worth the trouble? Only you can decide. It isn't cheap, and is rather touchy, but the Orchid Lily is without a doubt lovely. Long, slender wavy spear-like leaves can be green, reddish, olive, maroon and 20 inches long on the same plant when in health. They spread wide and look good in front of fine-leaved plants. Its large corn can produce a plant from each end. Properly cared for, Barclaya can be a spectacular display plant and is very long lived, as I've had specimens in my tanks for decades. Its flower is rarely displayed, but it does produce young plants from its corn. They need warmer water (about 84) and very bright light in shallow water to start. Only when they are five inches tall should they be moved to the display tank. Some may survive when left in the parent's tank.

Called Water Onions, the Crinums of West Africa and Asia are among the largest plants available to the planted tank enthusiast. Both species have long-tape like leaves a meter (39 inches) long, that trail across the surface, and both are very easy to grow.

First is C. natans of Africa. Its long, medium green, crinkled leaves sprout from its onion bulb-shaped corn. Its a beautiful plant, but a truly giant aquarium is needed to keep it, as its span is more than six feet in all directions. It needs bright light and a good substrate and very little else to grow into a showpiece. Herbivorous fish don't seem to like the taste of it, and usually leave it alone. Two leaf forms are available; the long, tape-like indented ones and a narrow, random, wire-like leave that grow in interesting curves and loops. Though it, too gets large, it takes more time to do so.

A giant among giants is C. thaianum of Thailand. Its dark green, inch wide tape-like leaves can reach nearly six feet, though if well established, truly long leaves can be carefully cut back. Be careful not to cut any part of the bulb. In time it can produce young versions of itself from the bulb.

Plant it and natans where the bulb is planted vertically about half-way down, where the upper half is in the water column.

Water Lilies are familiar to nearly everyone. Many have seen the giant Victoria Lilies in the Amazon on television that a grown man can stand on. There are a few species that are suitable for the planted aquarium of the Genii Nuphar, Nymphaea and Nymphoides. Lily bulbs may take a good deal of time to sprout (weeks to more than a month) and growth may start fairly slow, but will accelerate and all lily species save one will produce tons of leaves.

Called Spatterdock, Nuphar japonica of Japan has large, triangular leaves more than six inches long. Like most lily species, Spatterdock leaves will grow to the top, but high light and the removal of large or older leaves can keep it short. Japonica has strong stems that will withstand considerable buffering by fish. To my experience the plant does best in soft water. It propagates by side shoots from the rhizome (bulb), and shouldn't be kept over 77 degrees. It can be used in cold water tanks down to 64 degrees.

From Southeast Asia and Africa comes the Tiger Lotus; Nymphaea lotus. Speckled wavy roughly triangular leaves have colors of green and red-brown, though some exceptional specimens can be full reddish brown and look great in front of light green plants. The Tiger Lotus is easy to keep submerged under good light (3 or 4 wpg) with judicious trimming of large leaves attempting to stretch to the surface. If you like the look of floating lily leaves, the plant can be allowed to grow as it will, and its likely it will bloom when well established. It spreads via runners, and adult plants have wide and deep root systems, thus a deeper substrate is necessary between six and eight inches in its area.

Though occasional sold as the Tiger Lotus, Nymphaea stellata; the Red and Blue Water Lily of India has smaller light green spade-shaped leaves with pinkish-red undersides. The leaves reach under five inches and grows more compact (about a foot tall) than the Tiger Lotus, thus making it more suitable for smaller tanks. Bright light keeps the small green and pink leaves and compact size; in lesser light the leaves will get larger (8 inches), the pink and reds will be absent, and the plant is much more likely to race to the top looking for light. It likes temps in the mid-70's, but up to 80 does the plant no harm. Daughter plants come out of the rhizome on runners. A good substrate and good light is all this plant needs. Old plants seem to decline and die after a few years, but it procreates fairly freely, so replacements are easily had.

Though its root storage areas are above the gravel, the Banana Plant, so called for those tubers, hails from the Southern United States. Nymphoides aquatica should be left above the gravel were it will produce 'regular' roots to secure itself. The heart-shaped leaves on short stems reach a little more than four inches and are commonly green and red-brown. The Banana Plant survives best in very bright light and can reach eight inches tall in those conditions.

In such high light, algae will form on the tubers, and Otocinclus should be employed to remove it. Small plant lets can form from the root stocks, and given time, can become full-fledged plants. Adults have a limited live span, usual they decline and fail after a year. The Banana Plant likes its water between 68 and the mid-80's.

Thus, there are bulbs plants for nearly everyone; some that are ridiculously easy to grow and some that are very challenging to keep, but are worthwhile to try.
I hope this post encourages you to try the varied, lovely bulb plants.


(The) Hobbyist Guide to the Natural Aquarium, Dr. Chris Andrews, Tetra Press, 1991.
Encyclopedia of Aquarium Plants, Peter Hiscock, Barron's Educational Series, Inc., 2003.
Exotic Aquarium Fishes, Dr. William T. Innes, Innes Pubishing Company, 15th Edition, 1953.

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