Aquarium Stem Plants
Almost all extravagant, prize-winning planted tanks in books or on the internet contain stem plants. Yet, stem plants often fail in hobbyists' tanks. In this post I'll show you how to have success with them.
Above all else stem plants need light, and lots of it. A 260 watt fixture of full spectrum light over a 55 gallon aquarium would not be too much. One should aim towards four watts per gallon. And make no mistake, stem plants need a fine, nutrient-rich substrate and 30 to 35ppm of Co2. Commonly available plant substrates are perfect for stem plants. If you wish to use stem plants in your next planted aquarium, these are the bare essentials you need. .
Supplemental liquid fertilization would also be helpful. .
Now some species..
Cabomba is one of the most commonly available stem plants. C. caroliniana of Central and South America is by far the easiest Cabomba species to keep. It can be kept in any aquarium with a pH between 6.8 and 7.5, with soft to moderately hard water. The brighter the light the more compact and attractive it will be. C. caroliniana's dark green, finely divided leaves look good in the sides and background of larger tanks. It grows quite fast, needing weekly trimming in good conditions. .
C. caroliniana, called Green Cabomba in shops, reaches 20 inches tall. It prefers temps between 72-82 (22-28C). .
More challenging is C. aquatica, called Yellow Cabomba or Giant Cabomba. It must have soft, slightly acid water and very bright light. Peat filtration is quite helpful. Is the extra effort worth it? Aquatica is widely thought as one of the most lovely stem plants. Large, greenish-yellow whorls can reach more than two inches across. The leaves must be kept free of debris and fish such as Otocinclus or algae-eating shrimp should be employed in keeping it free of algae. .
Plant aquatica stems 2.5 to three inches apart so light can reach the lower leaves. Aquatica reaches more than 16 inches in good conditions. Trimming should be done from the bottom, as those done from the top often don't regrow shoots, and topped plants look unattractive. .
A beautiful plant. One of my favorites. .
Equally challenging and just as rewarding is C. furcata, the Red Cabomba. Its also listed as C. piauhyensis in older publications, though the former is more usual. Very bright light, Co2 and soft, slightly acid water will reward the keeper with a rusty red-medium green centerpiece in a 40-gallon tank, or a larger grove in a larger container. C. furcata reaches 16 inches tall, occasionally taller in exceptional surroundings. .
Generally easier to keep and just as beautiful are the Limnophilas. They usually go by name Ambulia in shops, which is no longer a valid name to science. All Limnophilas are from India, Indonesia and Sri Lanka, save for L. indica from Africa, Asia and Australia. .
Dwarf Ambulia (L. sessiliflora) is dwarf only in common name, as sessiliflora reaches 20 inches tall. It is more compact than most of the Limnophilas, adaptable to different water conditions (if extremes are avoided), and is by far the easiest of the group to keep, thus ideal for novice planted tank keepers. It does need a good source of iron and a very bright light, and 72-82 (22-28C) temperatures. It will reward the aquarist with quite fast growth which is noticeable day to day. It propagates by side shoots and runners, making a bush of itself in a short time if happy. Plant the stems about 1.5 inches apart. It does well in harder waters. .
UPDATE: L. sessilifora is on the Federal Noxious Weed List, and thus is banned in the United States. Those in other countries may still be able to obtain this plant. .
Much larger and more difficult to keep is L. aquatica, the Giant Ambulia of India and Sri Lanka. .
Reaching over 20 inches tall, the whorls of aquatica can reach 4.5 inches, making it a dominant plant in smaller aquariums. It needs a good source of iron and strong lighting, both for its health and to keep it more compact, as it has a tendency to get leggy. Trimming can cause aquatica to fail. Left alone, it will spread with new plants from its roots and new shoots on the stem. Spacing them out in groups at the back of aquariums is quite effective. Aquatica prefers 72 to 79 degree temperatures (22-26C). .
L. indica is a relatively easy, 16-20 inch plant that does well in most aquariums with strong lighting. There are several species that are sold under this name. Without examination of the flower, positive identification is impossible. However, all can be kept at 72 to 82 (22-28C) degrees and are adaptable to water conditions. Stems should be planted two inches apart so light can reach the lower leaves. .
Perhaps the easiest red plant to grow, Alternanthea reineckii provides contrast in the aquarium. If your tank has strong lighting, Co2 and an iron-rich substrate, I wouldn't hesitate to recommend this plant. .
Olive green, lanceolate (spear-like) tops over rich purplish-red undersides typify reineckii, but the red will fade in insufficient light. The more light it has, the healthier and more attractive reinecki will be. .
It can be cultivated by cuttings, but use sharp scissors to do so, as tearing can cause the plant to recede. Its common name is Red Temple Plant. .
Reineckii reaches 20 inches in the best conditions, less in most tanks. A most satisfying plant, this South American likes temps between 72 and 82 degrees (22-28C). .
The water milfoils, Myrophyllium, are one of the best plants for fry finding themselves in a dangerous world. The feathery, fine upward facing leaves are perfect warren for little fish to hide in. It also means the plant must be kept free of debris and algae. .
The delicate foxtails (M. aquatica. M. scabatum, M. hippuroides) must be kept in cooler water, between 65 and 74 degrees, with brilliantly bright light. In those conditions, they are very hardy, and develop into beautiful scrolls. Hippuroides of the United States (called the Green Milfoil, the Water Mifoil) can tolerate up to 75 degrees, though it does better in the upper 60's. It reaches 20 inches. Scabatum, called foxtail in the trade, can grow to 2 feet. Given cool water down even down to 65, it is quite hardy. Aquatica may be the king of the cool water aquarium plants, with delicate leaves on a long, graceful stem. .
Finding fish to go with these cool water beauties can be a challenge. Goldfish are unsuitable, as they will pick them apart. White Clouds (Tanichthys albonubes) and the exquisite Celestial Pearl Danio (Celestichthys margaritatus) are two options for a 72 degree tank. .
For the tropical tank, there are two stars; green myro and red myro. The latter is M. tuberculatum, from Brazil. It lives in water between 72-82 (22-28C), grows to 16 inches and sports rusty red leaves. It keeps that color in strong light and a low pH, down as low as 5.0 up to 7.5. It is important the water be soft with this species. Iron-rich fertilizers are essential. A similar plant, mattogrossense is sometimes sold as tuberculatum..
Banned in some parts of the US (check with your local government) is the lovely Green Myro (M. aquaticum) of South America. With bright light, a rich substrate, Co2 and iron fertilization, it grows very well, up to 20 inches, and needs to be kept with a low pH 6.0-7.0. It does best in soft water. In very good light it can produce tough leaves above the surface. Temps are 72-86 (22-30C). .
Both tropical and temperate milfoils produce side shoots from the stem, but cut these off to replant very carefully, as the parent stems are easily damaged. .
Ludwigia, a native of the United States, has long been popular in the aquarium. Given the temperate environment in most of the US, surprisingly, most species do very well in tropical tanks. Several hybrids are available, usually between L. repens and L. palustris. If you see one available as "L. mulletii", an invalid name, it is that hybrid. .
In its natural form, L. repens, called Creeping Ludwigia in shops, is quite variable. Most commonly it has light olive green rounded leaves on the surface with a reddish underside. Roots sprout from leaf nodes. .
Reaching 20 inches, L. repens grows very quickly in most tanks. Bright light and regular trimming will keep it healthy. Temps are 68-82 (20-28C). .
Called Red Star or Glandular Ludwigia, L. glandulosa comes from our southern states. Reaching up to 12 inches, glandulosa has dark green, two inch leaves with a white vein down the center. Underside is a rich purplish red. Good light, Co2 and chelated iron will keep that color. .
Ludwigia helminthorrhiza is an excellent floating plant, of which we have few. Medium-green slightly pointed oval leaves typify this species. It spreads via its stem, which grows horizontally across the surface. The trailing roots add a bit of jungle to your tank when viewed from below. Leaves are 1.5 to 2 inches long. .
It is important that a tank containing this species have a cover glass, to keep the air humid, and also have bright light for it. Liquid fertilization is recommended. Well situated, it spreads quickly. Trimmed when it gets too large, pieces can be given to other aquarium keepers. Bettas love this plant. .
With short, translucent, pearl-like leaves, L. arcuta is idea for the mid-ground of a well landscaped tank. It quickly turns itself into a bush, and will need judicious trimming to keep it in shape. A hardy plant for any new planted aquarium. .
All Ludwigias do best in the mid to upper 70's (up to 26C). .
Ammania, most commonly sold as A. gracilus, has grass-like, upright leaves on a red-brown stem. Its the character of these four-inch leaves that make the plant popular; green, brown and red on the same plant. Bright light and a good, loose substrate intensify those colors. Hailing from Africa and called Delicate or Red Amannia in the trade, gracilus can grow to 20 inches, though some stems will top out at 10. It will grow moderate to fast, depending on the conditions. Temps are 72-82 (22-28C). .
Gracilus is commonly planted in front of plants with light green leaves for contrast. It spreads by side shoots and by cutting. .
The Bacopas are fleshy-leaved plants that have been popular in the hobby for over 70 years. In reality a marsh plant, Bacopa grows slowly submerged, but in clear, clean water and under bright light, Bacopa commonly blooms in aquariums if planted out in the open in well-spaced (about 2 inches) groups. .
Most common is Giant Bacopa; B. caroliniana from the southern US and Central America. Highly adaptable and quite hardy, if happy, a lovely white four or five petaled flower will be produced on a long tendril reaching for the surface. .
When crushed, the leaves have a scent between new-mown grass and sage. Caroliniana grows from 8 to 16 inches, occasionally more. It prefers soft water but can adapt to most setups. It can be kept in cooler water, down to 72, though does best at 75 to 77 degrees. .
The West African Bacopa monnieri is sold as Baby Tears or Dwarf Bacopa. More delicate in appearance than the former, monnieri is tolerant of varied water conditions, but ideally very bright light, regular fertilization, a good substrate and Co2 will have this plant looking its best. In such surroundings a lilac-purple flower will be produced as the plant eventually reaches 20 inches tall. Only very bright light will keep it compact; otherwise the plant will be leggy and weak. Judicious pruning will keep it in shape. Monnieri prefers temps between 72 and 86. .
Water-loving is what Hygrophila means, and describes several species available to the planted tank enthusiast. However one of the best, H. polysperma, is no longer available in the US, as it has been placed on the Federal Noxious Weed List. Other countries may be able to obtain it. .
Highly adaptable, in good conditions polysperma can reach 20 inches. Dark green, white veined lanceolate leaves typify this species, whose exceptional adaptability doomed it in America. Ideally, great light and conditions will make it thrive. It spreads by cuttings and side shoots. A great plant for beginners. .
Giant Hygrophila. H. corymbosa, comes to us from India and Indonesia. Also called Nomaphila stricta in some parts of the world, corymbosa is very popular due to its beauty and adaptability. It'll grow in nearly any substrate and isn't fussy about water quality. The light green spade-like leaves look like those from an terrestrial tree. .
Corymbosa is commonly planted in the corners of aquariums as the plant looks out of place otherwise. .
H. difformis, called Water Wisteria, hails from Southeast Asia, and is quite variable in appearance. At lower temperatures (75 degrees, 24 C) the leaves are thicker and smaller. Warmer, up to 82 (28C) its a lighter green with large, (more than four inches) highly divided leaves. Too little light will cause it to drop its leaves, and snails find it quite tasty, but Wisteria is lovely plant. It prefers temps in the upper 70's (about 25C) and slowly grows to 20 inches tall. It can be reproduced by cuttings and side shoots. .
H. guianensis, from Guiana, is a bit more difficult to grow than other Hygrophilas. It will fail unless given bright light, plenty of space between stems, a very good substrate, and Co2. Given them, it can be expected to thrive. The light green, plainly veined leaves can reach more than four inches and be nearly an inch across. Guianensis tops out at 10 inches (25 cm) and prefers temps between 72 and 82 (22-28C). .
The Rotalas are an Asian genus with several striking species for the aquarium. Perhaps the most popular and most challenging to keep is Rotala macranda, the Giant Red Rotala. The crumpled paper-like leaves can be deep red, brown, yellow and green if the plant gets what it needs; an iron-rich substrate and 4+watts-per-gallon of full spectrum light. .
Plant macranda carefully, as the stems are easily damaged. Planted in groups, with shorter stems in front as an accent plant, macranda has few equals. Macranda reaches 20 inches tall and needs temperatures between 77-82 degrees (25-30C). .
Dwarf Rotala, L. rotundifolia has small, dark olive leaves on a dark green stem. Reaching 20 inches tall, dwarf Rotala grows well in a planted aquarium substrate and bright light. Fairly easy to keep, Dwarf Rotala is a pretty plant for the background of your tank. Cuttings should be four inches or more to make sure they take. Given 4+ wpg, upper leaves can turn an attractive pinkish-red color. .
Temps are 68-82 (20-28C). At low temps, dwarf Rotala's growth may slow down and stop. .
Looking more like a Myrophyllium than a Rotala, R. wallichi is an attractive rusty red in excellent surroundings (iron-rich substrate, bright light, soft water). Many prize-winning planted tanks use this plant as a graduated background. Given sympathetic surroundings, wallachi isn't a tender plant. Reaching 16 or more inches, wallachi is procreated by judicious cuttings. It like temperatures between 72 and 86 degrees (22-30C). To my experience, it grows best at 77. .
Called Water Hedge, the North America native Diplidis diandra winds up our list. Reaching about a foot tall, diandra when established branches out from its stems, making a real bush of itself in short order. In very bright light, the top leaves turn a rusty red. Water Hedge does best in soft water with an iron-ruch substrate, regular fertilization and full-spectrum light. Its doesn't do well at all in hard water. Temps between 75-82 (24-28C) suit this species. .
There are several more stem plants available to the planted tank enthusiast. I encourage to seek out and learn about the plants listed above, so you, too can develop a 'wet thumb'. .
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