10 Easy Plants for African Cichlid Aquariums
When you think of the stereotypical aquarium for African cichlids, it usually has a somewhat barren appearance consisting of sand, rockwork, and maybe fake decorations. The reason for the lack of live plants is because (1) many omnivorous and herbivorous cichlids like mbunas love to eat vegetation and (2) a lot of them enjoy digging to create spawning sites, which inadvertently uproots plants. Aquarium Co-Op is all about aquarium plants. We love their natural beauty and ability absorb nitrogen waste. This can cause aggression in African cichlid tank that have been deliberately overcrowded. Therefore, we have spent years experimenting with and searching for the most “cichlid-proof” plants. Learn about the top 10 easy plants that have survived the gauntlet and do well with our African cichlids.
Aquatic plants that float at the surface are perfect because they do not grow in the ground and therefore cannot be uprooted by fish. Aside from being quick growers, aquatic plants can also absorb large quantities of nitrates, phosphate and other nutrients, helping to purify tank water. However, many floating plants are quite tasty to mbunas and peacocks, so you have to find species that are unpalatable to fish.
Hornwort floating at water’s surface
Hornwort (Ceratophyllum desmersum) is a floating herb we have had great success with. They are the most notorious of all African cichlid plant-eaters. They look fluffy but their pine needle-like leaves are very tough and slightly serrated. Although some African cichlids might try to eat them or tear off a piece, the damage is not noticeable because hornwort grows so quickly. The main thing to note is that if they run out of nutrients in the aquarium, this plant has the bad habit of shedding its fine needles, which can be a mess to clean up. See our complete care guide for more information on Hornwort.
Cabomba (Cabomba spp.) It is a stem-plant that can be grown by floating it on the surface. It has a feathery appearance and is a little more delicate than hornwort, but fish seem to dislike its taste all the same. When given high lighting, it can grow surprisingly quickly. In fact, some states like Washington and California label cabomba as an invasive species, so check with your local government laws to see if it is legal in your area.
Plants for Epiphyte
An epiphyte is another type of plant that does not need any substrate to grow and is often attached to rock, driftwood, or decorations to prevent them from being knocked around too much. You can fasten them to objects using fishing line, sewing thread, or even super glue gel. If your newly purchased epiphyte comes inside a plastic basket, you can place a root tab inside the rock wool and then slip the basket inside an Easy Planter rock decoration. Many epiphyte plants have a rhizome (or horizontal stem), so be careful not to bury the rhizome in substrate or cover it with too much glue, or else it may begin to deteriorate.
Anubias plants are very popular because they are beginner friendly, enjoy low light, and come in a wide assortment of shapes and sizes. We like to recommend bigger species – such as Anubias barteri, Anubias coffeefolia, and Anubias nangi – because they have thick, hardy leaves and sturdy rhizomes that can take more of a beating.
Anubias inside an Easy Planter decoration
Javaferns have a similar appearance to anubias, due to their low light requirements, easy care and sturdy leaves. There are three main types: regular java, windelov (or laces) java, and narrow-leaf java. It is easy to propagate them by either splitting the rhizome or cutting off a leaf, and letting tiny plantlets grow from the black dots at the leaf’s bottom.
Bolbitis, also known as Bolbitis heudelotii, is a beautiful epiphyte that has textured, vividly green leaves. It can grow to large size and be used as a background plant. Also known as the African water fern, it does well in waters with high pH and GH that African cichlids usually prefer. While epiphyte plants tend to be slower than floating plants in terms of growth, bolbitis can grow into an impressive bush that could dominate even a medium-sized aquarium.
Java moss (Taxiphyllum barbieri) is a slow-growing but hardy moss that looks beautiful when attached to rocks and driftwood. Some of the moss can be attached to a wire mesh to make a fuzzy carpet, or even a moss wall. Java moss, unlike the other three plants, does not have roots or a rhizome. Instead it spreads through “sticky” Rhizoids that stick to surfaces.
With fish that constantly dig to find food or establish spawning sites, it may seem impossible to keep plants that grow from the substrate. However, there are a few species of plants that can be kept grounded by fish that dig for food or establish spawning sites.
A forest of vallisneria
Vallisneria is one of the few plants found growing in the wild in Lake Tanganyika and does well with higher pH and GH. You can find many varieties in the hobby such as Vallisneria spiralis or its larger cousin Vallisneria Americana. This grass-like plant can grow very tall and block line of sight, which helps to reduce aggression. Plus, it proliferates quite rapidly and can transform your fish tank into an underwater jungle for your fish to weave in and out of. For extra protection, we like to leave the vallisneria inside their original plastic pots with a few root tabs. Easy Green all-in one fertilizer can be added to the water. Once the plant starts producing runners, it will spread out across the substrate like a daisy chain. Once you have a thick forest of val and the roots are firmly attached, then add the fish. For more information on how to set up an African cichlid tank with vallisneria, read the full article.
Crinum calamistratum, known as the African onion plant, is a slow-growing bulb plant that enjoys hard, alkaline water. Because of its tough, crinkly foliage that can reach up to 4 feet (1.2m), it makes a great centerpiece for larger aquariums. To prevent the bulb from being thrown away, place it on top of the substrate. Because the water is unfamiliar to the crinum, leaves might melt initially. However, if you give it low to medium light and keep it from being moved, the bulb will start making long, ruffled tendrils that reach all the way to the water surface.
Amazon sword surrounded by rocks to prevent goldfish from uprooting it
Sword plants – like the Amazon sword, red flame sword, and red melon sword – get the nickname of “tank busters” because they have large, broad leaves and extensive roots that can grow to take over an entire medium-sized aquarium. This pervasive root system allows them to survive being uprooted as long as they are well-established prior to adding African cichlids. While melting might occur at first when the plant is introduced to an aquarium’s water, this will quickly disappear if you give it lots of root tabs or nutrients. The Easy Planter is not the best option. We recommend a barrier of rockswork or decorations that can be easily removed as the plant grows.
If your cichlids are determined to eat every bit of plant they can find, you should consider growing emersed plants outside the tank.
(Dracaena sanderiana), and
All plants we have grown with the leaves above the water, and the roots in the water. The aquarium allows the plants to draw nutrients and keeps the leaves safe from hungry fish. Most of the time, the fish seem to leave the roots alone, but if they keep nibbling on them, consider placing the plant in a hang-on-back filter or a plant basket that hooks onto the aquarium rim.
Pothos leaves growing roots in water, without substrate
None of these “cichlid-proof” plants are completely guaranteed to work, but we hope that at least a few of them do well in your African cichlid aquariums. Smaller cichlids are often less destructive than larger ones, so check out our list of top 10 cichlids we love to keep in a 29-gallon fish tank.