Low Light Aquarium Plants
Plants that can live under low light conditions are important for bowls, or any aquarium where you are trying to work without electricity or minimize electricity use.
Saving electricity is both economic, particularly with today's high energy prices, and ecological. This is what this web site is about, taking an energy-intensive hobby and showing that it can be done with relatively little energy and little harm to the environment.
Quick SummaryThere are several groups of plants that thrive in low light: Aponogetons, Cryptocorynes, Anubias, and aquatic ferns.
I strongly recommend Apnogetons. I have found that they grow vigorously under fairly low light. Apnogetons are also attractive and inexpensive. They are often sold as "bulbs," frequently under the name "Betta Bulbs." These "bulbs" are actually rhizomes, not true bulbs like tulips. Aponogetons do not grow well in the extremely hard water I have locally. I have raised them in bottled water. One web page said they grew in soft and medium-hard water.
In the very hard water from our tap Cryptocorynes work best. They are much slower growing than Apnogetons, but given time they do well. Cryptocorynes are also attractive.
Anubias are especially beautiful, more expensive than most aquatic plants, grow slowly, but it is said they can survive very low light conditions.
Aquatic ferns often do well in low light. Two of them are very popular. First, the Java Fern, a hardy low light plant, but ugly. Second, Java Moss is also a fern. It makes a good spawning medium, and protection for baby fish. Survives low light well.
My Experience At LengthI have been keeping low light plants in fish bowls for many years now. I have kept plants in both bottled water and the super hard water local tap water. In the rest of the page I will go over that experience more extensively for those who might want to pick up a pointer or two and build on my experience.
ApnogetonsThe Aponogetons can thrive with relatively low light. In my previous apartment, we had a north-facing window in the living room where I kept my bowls. I did not keep my bowls in the window but off to one side. I tried to keep the drapes closed in the summer to keep the apartment cool and in the winter to keep it warm. Nevertheless, the aponogetons thrived and took over the bowls creating jungles.
This only happened however when I used soft, bottled water. The water in my town is very hard. Actually, if you mix it half and half with distilled water the mixture is still borderline very hard. I only had luck with Aponogetons when I used mostly bottled water. If your water is soft however they are definitely worth a try. They also may grow well in medium, and perhaps even hard water. Remember my local water, which makes aponogetons drop their leaves, is super hard.
In fact, I would say as a decorative plant for low light conditions they are the best option I have tried. Even if your water is hard you might want to accommodate them with bottled water. Because bowls are relatively small many people can afford 30 cents for a gallon of water every once in a while. This is particularly a good option when you have some other reason for wanting soft water.
Aponogetons have many different leaf shapes, but they tend to be attractive plants.
Aponogetons have what is called a bulb, but is actually a rhizome. The bulbs are often sold dry, sometimes under the name, "Betta Bulbs." The package may say they are guaranteed to grow. In my experience, they will grow, but the growth will be very disappointing if the water is very hard. If the water is soft the growth will be impressive.
Walmart also sells these bulbs. Both "Betta Bulbs" and the bulbs sold at Walmart are discussed at the other end of this link. All the people who are making comments are very pleased which suggests that most people may have water that is soft enough for Aponogetons.
Here is a web site that will give you a look at what Aponogetians look like.
CryptocorynesI am currently having my best luck with a Crytocoryne plant. I have kept one of them for several years. It produced a nice plant with plenty of leaves and ultimately sent out a runner that produced a second plant that thrived. More recently these two plants have produced more plants which seem to be growing nicely. Together they have produced a nice jungle in my two-gallon bowl.
I have also successfully transferred three small plants from the first bowl to one of my large Lee's Kritter Keepers. All three transfers went very well, I hardly lost a leaf.
I got a second Cryptocoryne plant from a science teacher at a school where I work. I thought it was a different species, but careful examination and comparing it with pictures online brought me to the realization that I had simply gotten another plant of the same species, and perhaps even the same variety. It seems that it looked a little different because it was raised under different conditions.
The first summer I planted it most of the leaves died, but many new ones grew. According to some web sites, I have read Crypts do not like change, and the change from his tank to my bowl was pretty radical. Note that transferring the Crypts from one bowl to another did not result in the same problems.
The Crypt I got from the science teacher has grown, but not really quickly through two summers, and is presently surviving well its second winter.
When the Cryptocornes are growing a new leaf comes up from the center, and then a week or two later another comes up. Each plant grows one new leaf at a time.
My current bowls are in a room with an east facing window, so they do get morning sun. But we live under redwoods. It is not as dark as a real redwood forest, but much of the sun is lost. I also have an over hanging eve. I keep the drapes closed in the winter and the summer to save energy. When the weather is nice outside I try to keep them open. I am providing all this information on light because making plants grow without electric light is what the page is about.
I think that one reason I am doing relatively well with the Cryptocorynes is they have plenty of soil in the gravel. The Crypt I keep in the bowl has the advantage of several years of accumulated fish wastes that I have not cleaned too carefully.
The new Crypt has some soil from the back yard in a little round clear plastic disk with sides that stick straight up about an inch. They are commonly sold at our local nurseries in various sizes. The soil is covered with a layer of gravel. Providing the proper soil may keep the plant alive under low light conditions because it does not have to struggle for nutrients while it is struggling with the shortage of light.
It has been said that it takes a while for Crypts to become established. I have wondered if this is because in a new aquarium there is not enough accumulated fish waste to act as soil. Providing soil may help them get started faster.
Aquatic FernsBoth Java Fern and Java Moss are actually ferns and can grow under low light. I have kept both of these plants with considerable success. In my opinion, they are not particularly beautiful, but they are hardy, surviving conditions that would normally kill other plants.
They are also well adapted to hard water which as I mentioned before is important where I live. Our tap water is so hard we can't drink it, we have to lick it. I exaggerate ... a bit.
Java Moss consists of a mass of small strands. It is not particularly decorative but it is useful as a spanning medium for many egg layers and can protect the young of live bearers. There is usually a ready market for it. You maybe able to grow it and turn it into your local pet store to trade for fish, and plants.
I have noted that a web page on common aquarium plants says it needs a minimum temperature of 75F. I have kept it at around 60F and it did not die.
I was formerly rotating three clumps of Java Moss between my adult catfish breeding container, a small clear container in the window, outside the drapes, and a dishpan where I am growing out catfish fry. As the dishpan is white plastic light can not get into it. Some light gets into the adult catfish container, which is clear plastic, but inside the drapes. I believe Java Moss can survive long term in this environment but it does not grow rapidly. It does grow rapidly outside the drapes in a small clear container.
Java Fern looks much more like a normal plant with leaves, but they have irregular shapes and are therefore not as attractive as others.
I kept Java Fern for several years but ultimately the last plant died off. Nevertheless, this took years to happen, it did fairly well under low light conditions. Perhaps it simply could not compete.
There are a couple of other water ferns I have not tried which according to the page on common aquarium plants mentioned above are good for low light. One is water sprite, Ceratopteris, the other African water fern, Bolbitus Heudelotii.
AnubiasI got my first Anubias more than about a year ago. While Anubias is normally expensive I got a small plant, probably a poor left over, for two bucks. It had one large leaf and two small ones growing together. The large leaf was green, but it rapidly died. The small leaves, which are probably much younger survived but did not grow. They look about the same as they did when I got the plant.
There is a long green "root" that is supposed to grow along the top of the gravel. I buried this for several months, but noticing that many sources said it should not be buried I finally dug it up. It seems none the worse for being buried but once again it has not grown.
It has many small roots coming off this main "root" I try to keep some of these buried, but sometimes they come out of the gravel when I am cleaning.
I put this plant outside the drapes, as that is fairly consistently producing rapid growth. One leaf that was a little above the water line largely died, I lost about half of it. Three new leaves grew. So I have seen some growth, but it is far from overwhelming even with the light outside the curtains.
Many sources say it is really a super low light plant. The standard story is that it can survive without light at all for a long period. It is often noted that it is a little expensive.
Also the page on common aquarium plants mentioned above says it likes the temperature rage 72-82F (22-28)C. The same site does not give a temperature range for crypts or aponogetons. If Anubias really required that to survive, they would not work well in my bowls, but Java Moss survives in my bowls and the same page says it requires 75F. As mentioned above I found Java Moss lived and grew at 60F. After several months of Winter, I can say the big leaf died, but the rest of the plant seems to be just fine. On the other hand, it did not grow. That maybe because of the temperature.
Plastic PlantsThe great thing about the low light plants listed above is that they have many of the advantages of plastic plants but they are real. With minimal light low light plants can grow, even if slowly at times, and thrive. This adds a lot to my fish bowls.
But I do have a few plastic plants that I put in empty bowls now and then to keep the fish comfortable. It is important to note that plants provide a place for fish to hide, which is important to avoid stressing them.
Furthermore they provide another place for the bacterial slime that changes ammonia to nitrites and nitrites to nitrates to grow.
Plastic plants are also useful when you are setting up a temporary bowl for fish, perhaps to quarantine new fish. They are also useful when you want to use a medicine to treat the fish which kills plants. Plastic plants are also very useful if you want to keep snails which like to eat plants, or perhaps fish that eat or tear up plants.
Plastic plants also allow you to concentrate on the needs of the fish. Every time you add another living thing into the system there is one more thing that has to be considered.
Furthermore, because plastic plants do not require light, they do not require electricity. One is not even tempted to leave the curtains open, which can increase heating costs. Therefore, plastic plants are green, as in ecological, regardless of their physical color.
I also use very small flower pots, often turned on their sides, to give the fish cover. You can also buy rocks, and driftwood at the store. So for those who really want to avoid plastic plants there are alternatives.
Tips for Low Light PlantsI often try to put plants in the window in a small container. This should give them a lot more light than they get behind a closed curtain. I have been running experiments on this with Java Moss. They seem to growth a lot more and the plant is greener. The difference is fairly dramatic.
I am also doing this with an Anubias root. This is also working fairly well. I started with two leaves, each of which were about an inch across. Now I have two new ones of the same size. This happened in a month or so. I had not been getting any growth before.
I often take out a cup or two of water and add in a cup of water from the fish bowls to provide some fertilizer.
Links To Low Light Plants PagesLow light plants web page. This one mentions some plants I have not covered.
Other Pages On Bowls On This Site
Sign My Guestbook
Last Updated December 21, 2006