Selecting the right plants for decorating a low light aquarium may sound rather limiting in options for you. Surprisingly this is not the case. Not only are there a large variety of plant species and sub-species for you to chose from, the low lighting setup is also one of the more natural conditions for many plants in the wild.
The conditions found in many streams, rivers, and marshes, limits just how much ample unfiltered sunlight aquatic plants can revive. Over hanging trees, steep river banks, and deep water, all add towards lowering the levels of penetrating sunlight. This means that one of the easiest lighting setups for both beginners and experts to use, is also one of the best lighting solutions for many plants.
This article will be covering our top 15 picks for aquatic plants, that are best suited for low light aquariums. For more information on related topics, please read the following articles:
- Live Aquarium Plants for Your Betta Fish
- How To Setup an Aquatic Plant Environment For Your Betta
- Designing an Aquascape
1) Marimo Moss Balls (Aegagropila Linnaei)
These small green balls of algae, sit on the bottom of your tank sucking up nitrates, and pumping oxygen back into the water. We cover Marimo Moss Balls in greater detail in our article Marimo Moss Balls – Everything There Is to Know. This is one plant that we highly recommend to any and all freshwater aquarium enthusiast.
Not only are they easy to propagate, they make for a nice little featured center pieces in most aquascapes. From minimalist designs, to dense foliage, moss balls can fill in a void, and draw the eye to/away from things. Generally speaking, they are athletically pleasing.
Aside from our own visual enjoyment from their inclusion, many fish species also gain additional benefits from their inclusion as well. Shrimp and bottom feeders such as Cory, can find tasty morsels trapped along its surface. They can also give Bettas and other small fish somewhere to rest and sleep. Playful species such as the Kuhli Loach (Pangio Kuhlii) have been known to play with them by knocking them about.
2) Java Moss (Vesicularia Dubyana)
One of the easiest aquatic plants to grow. They are a hardy and adaptable moss, that is capable of enduring most conditions. They grow according to light levels. So in low light, java moss grows rather slowly, but in higher light levels they can grow relatively quickly.
Java moss have no roots, but they will attach themselves to any porous surface. This makes them ideal for creating living walls, and for covering different shaped decor. You can assist the java moss to anchor itself onto an object, by tying it down with cotton or nylon string, or even with aquarium glue.
Their tiny oval shape leaves can also provide an ideal perch for some fish to lay their eggs. Java moss are also compatible with most freshwater species in general.
3) Java Fern (Microsorum Pteropus)
All in all, there are six species of Java Fern. All of which are compatible with most freshwater fish, and can tolerate a wide range of temperatures and lighting conditions. The leaves of each species can be found in a variety of shapes and sizes, from short to long, wide to thin, or even with detailed branching that’s almost lace-like in appearance.
The natural habitat of java ferns is in shallow waters and along the edges of rivers, waterfalls, and rocks. Many hobbyists design their aquascaping with this in mind. This is why they are often placed along side rocks and other hardscapes in aquariums.
Should you attempt to anchor your java fern to a piece of decor in your aquarium, it is advised that you use cotton thread to tie them together. This will give the java fern time for its rhizomes to grip onto the decor’s surface.
As low maintenance aquatic plants, some species may require infrequent trimming and can grown as large as 12-14 inches long. When grown in a low light systems, java ferns will grow bright green leaves that fan out more loosely from the base of the plant. In stronger lighting conditions, the java fern’s leaves will darken and and grow in denser clumps, reaching upwards.
4) African Water Fern (Bolbitis heduelotii)
This relatively large aquatic plant is native to the Congo river basin of Africa. Due to their size, which can be as large as 22 inches, it is not recommended that you use these plants in smaller aquariums. They are well suited for medium tanks and larger, that contain warmer waters.
Under low light conditions, the African water fern is a slow growing plant. These plants should not be kept with goldfish, koi, or cichlids, as they will most likely cause the plant damage. Partnering them up with shrimp and/or algae eating fish is an excellent option to consider.
The African water fern is an easy plant to care for and requires little maintenance in a low light system. They will easily tether themselves to almost any surface. This means that you could loosely place the plant near where you would like it to grow. Or you could anchor it in place with the use of nylon or cotton thread.
The long slender leaves with their raised veins and rounded tips, stretch up like tall blades of grass. It is for this reason, that many hobbyists, find that the vallisneria are great for framing the sides and back of an aquarium.
Low light conditions can slow their rate of growth to an easily manageable level. More maintenance will be needed when they begin to flower though. When propagating, they will grow long stalks that reach up to the surface, producing the female flower. The male flower grows on short stalks, and can be found floating along the surface once it has broken off on its own accord. Should seeds actually develop, they will be contained in banana shaped capsules.
All up, there are are approximately thirty different species that are direct descendants of the sagittaria. Species such as arrowhead, duck potato, Katniss, Kuwait, Swan potato, Tule potato, and Wapato are examples of such descendants.
Grown in circular clusters, and propagated by sending out runners to generate a new plant. We find that these grass-like plants, with their yellow and bright green leaves, make excellent additions to any background, foreground, or mid-ground aquascaping feature.
7) Green Hygro (Hygrophila Polysperma)
An extremely easy to grow and hardy freshwater aquarium plant, the green hygro does have a considerably fast growth rate, making them a mid-high maintenance plant.
Trimming the plant back, will encourage new growth to occur in the affected area. This means that should you cut off a dead/dying section, new growth will soon begin to replace it.
This plant does not have any particular requirement for substrate in order to be able to thrive. Even so, it does need to be kept away from goldfish and digging cichlids as they will most likely damage it. Most other herbivorous fish will not eat this plant however.
8) Sunset Hygro (Hygrophila polysperma)
A native plant to the warmer waters of southeast Asia, the sunset hygro is a hardy plant and requires little maintenance. We love these plants for their primarily green leaves with their white veins running along it’s length. With high enough levels of iron in the substrate, you can produce leaves that have red and purple hues at the top of the plant’s stalk, and red-pink edges on the leaves further down.
You can choose to have these plants anchored into the substrate, or allowed to float freely along the surface. Personally we prefer to contain them to one area of the aquarium, either rooted into the substrate of prevented from floating around through the use of hardscape.
9) Rotala Indica
A rather fragile and difficult plant for beginners to grow under low-light conditions. The rotala indica is known for also having a rather limited optimal water temperature range of 72-80° Fahrenheit, which only further adds to the challenge for inexperienced hobbyists.
Despite all this, these plants remain one of our favorite plants to include in our low-medium light aquariums, and would highly recommend them to any experienced freshwater enthusiast.
Their needle-like leaves have rounded ends, and sprout forth from a reddish stem. Rotala indica does not have a uniformed coloration to their leaves, some can be mostly green, others can have the leaves at the top being green, with more and more leaves taking the reddish hue the further down the stem you go.
Under low light conditions, the rotala is not likely to take on the more dense, bushy growth that they can be known for. The illusion of a thicker growth can be achieved by planting several plants in a closer cluster and obscuring their base, and only showcasing their upper stalks.
10) Cryptocoryne Wendtii
The leaves of the cryptocoryne wendtii are long, with wavy edges. They can be found in hues of brown, red or green, and in low light conditions, they can reach lengths of up to 18 inches.
The cryptocoryne wendtii are ideal for both obscuring objects as well as functioning as a focal feature, drawing the eye to particular section in any aquascape design. Their main requirement needed to help ensure stable growth, is that they have a loose substrate with a large enough grain size. This will help to encourage the proper growth of their root system.
11) Guppy Grass (Najas guadalupensis)
Arguably, one of the most ideal plants to be used in a shrimp and breeding tank. Their thin green leaves, twist and wind their way into dense clumps and tangled knots. In doing so, this helps to provide fry and shrimp with a nice place to hide and forage.
Being a free floating plant, substrate is not require for these plants. They can be very compatible with most bare bottom aquascape designs. The coloration of their leaves is highly dependent on lighting levels. The lower the level the darker shade of green the plant will take.
They can also be a fast growing plant and may require frequent trimming. With their fast growth rate and tolerance for water temperatures of up to 85° Fahrenheit, the guppy grass is an extremely easy plant to care for.
12) Pelia/Pelia Moss (Monosolenium Tenerum)
This unique looking plant may look similar to moss, but it behaves very differently. Unlike moss, Pelia does not rapidly grow into thick mats, nor attach themselves to any structures or surfaces as they do not use roots or rhizomes to hold themselves in place.
The pelia will instead sit loosely on the bottom of the tank. Some hobbyist allow there pelia to drift and roll around in their aquarium. Others prefer to anchor the pelia in place by using nylon or cotton thread to attached it to an object that will help to contain its movement. If left alone, they can sink to the bottom on their own or maintain several degrees of buoyancy.
They can have a round, dome like bushy shape and can be brittle. As such, it is best to avoid pairing the pelia with goldfish and schooling fish as they can easily damage its leaves. Though physically fragile, this type of plant can tolerate a wide range of temperatures, and nutrient levels.
This does not mean that the pelia is a functional plant. Consider the pelia as more of a decorative plant, then a utility one. As they tend to have a very low impact of water quality and chemistry. They are not a good choice for trying to filter out nitrates and ammonia from the water in your aquarium.
13) Waterwheel Plant (Aldrovanda vesiculosa)
The aquatic version of a Venus flytrap. Waterwheel plants are free floating carnivorous plants that feed on water fleas, insects, tadpoles, mosquito wigglers and other microorganisms and tiny plankton in the wild.
Being a meat eater, waterwheels can share the same food source as fish that can have their diets supplemented with zooplankton. Although some people believe that the waterwheel will actually eat their fish, this is not the case for most fish species. There have been reports of them eating fry however, so we would advise against using this plant in breeding tanks.
We must admit that there is a morbid curiosity for these plants. But they can also produce a solitary white flowers that protrudes out of the water. What makes these flowers so special, is that they are rare to see. The flowers only open for a few hours before being drawn back under the water. This makes propagating via seedlings difficult, so it would be best to grow additional plants from cuttings.
14) Cryptocoryne Spiralis
With long narrow leaves that almost looks like grass, the cryptocoryne spiralis makes an excellent plant for beginners and expert aquarium enthusiasts alike. Requiring an iron rich substrate, these plants can be grown both in clumps or spread apart.
Their long leaves have a central stem, and crinkled edging that helps to provide structural support. Under ideal conditions, the leaves could reach lengths as long as 16 inches.
The biggest drawback to growing cryptocoryne spiralis , is that they have a rather narrow temperature range of only 75-82° Fahrenheit. This can make it rather difficult trying to include this plant in areas where it could be hard to maintain a stable temperature.
15) Red Ludwigia (Ludwigia Repens)
This gorgeous plant, with its red-bright orange hues can bring color to any aquarium. We find that the red ludwigia can be used to decorate an aquarium on its own. When situated in among or near green plants, its vibrant colors are only accentuated even further.
Requiring an iron rich substrate, these plants can tolerate a temperature range of as low as 59° to 75° Fahrenheit. If left unchecked, the stems can reach lengths of up to 20 inches. So to encourage a more bushy shaped growth, it is recommended that you frequently trim these stems back.