10 Easy Plants for African Cichlid Aquariums
The stereotypical aquarium for African Cichlids is usually characterized by a barren appearance with sand, rockwork and possibly fake decorations. One reason there are no live plants is that (1) many herbivorous and omnivorous cichlids such as mbunas enjoy eating vegetation, and (2) some of them love digging to create spawning spots, which inadvertently plants. Aquarium Co-Op cares about aquarium plants. They are beautiful and can absorb nitrogen waste. 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. They are also known for their ability to absorb large amounts of nitrates and phosphate, which helps purify the 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 the water surface
Hornwort, Ceratophyllum dermersum is a floating flower we have great success with. These mbunas are among the most notorious African cichlid plant eaters. Their pine needle-like, fluffy leaves are quite hardy and slightly serrated. The hornwort can be bitten by African cichlids, but the damage is so minimal that they are almost invisible. One thing to keep in mind is that the hornwort will shed its fine needles once they have run out of nutrients. It can also cause damage to the aquarium. You can find more information about Hornwort in our care guide.
Cabomba (Cabomba spp.) is a stem plant that can also be grown by floating it at 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. It can grow quickly if it is exposed to high levels of light. 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 plant is another type that doesn’t require a substrate. They are often attached to rocks, driftwood or decorations to stop them being knocked around. You can fasten them to objects using fishing line, sewing thread, or even super glue gel. A plastic container with epiphyte can be used to store it. You can then place a root tab into the rock wool, and then slide the basket inside an Easy Planter decoration. A lot of epiphyte plants have an rhizome (or horizontal root). If you do not want to cover the rhizome with substrate or glue, it can begin to deteriorate.
Anubias is a popular choice because they are easy-to-learn, tolerate low light, are versatile and available in a variety sizes. We recommend Anubias cocofolia, Anubias espressofolia, Anubias nangi as larger species. These plants have thick, durable leaves and sturdy rhizomes which can withstand a lot more.
Anubias inside an Easy Planter decoration
Java ferns are similar to anubias because of their easy care, low light requirements, and durable leaves. The most popular varieties are the regular Java fern, Windelov (or “lace”) java-fern, and the narrow-leaf java–fern. They are easy to propagate by either (1) splitting the rhizome into two halves or (2) cutting off a leaf and letting little plantlets sprout from the black dots on the leaf’s underside.
Bolbitis (Bolbitis heudelotii) is a gorgeous epiphyte with textured, vivid green leaves that can grow very large and serve as a background plant. The African water fern is also known. It can thrive in waters with high pH levels and high GH, which are what African cichlids love. While epiphytes are slower growers than floating plants (mostly), bolbitis can become a formidable bush that could dominate even a medium-sized aquarium.
Java moos (Taxiphyllum britannii) is a hardy, slow-growing moss that can be attached to rocks or other materials. Some are already attached to wire mesh and can be used for making a fuzzy carpet. Java moss is not like the three previous plants. It does not have roots nor a rhizome. Instead, it spreads by “sticky”, rhizoids which grip onto 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. We know of a few species that work, provided you follow these tips and tricks.
A forest in vallisneria
Vallisneria, one of few plants that can be grown in the wild at Lake Tanganyika, is able to tolerate higher pH and higher GH. There are several varieties sold in the hobby, such as Vallisneria spiralis and its larger cousin Vallisneria americana. This grass-like perennial grows tall and blocks line of sight to prevent 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. We like leaving the vallisneria in their original plastic pots (with a few root tabs for extra nutrients) and placing them inside an Easy Planter for extra protection. Dose some Easy Green all-in-one fertilizer in the water, and the original plant should begin sending out runners that multiply across the substrate in a daisy chain. Once you have a thick forest of val and the roots are firmly attached, then add the fish. You can read the entire article to learn how to set-up an African cichlid tank using vallisneria.
Crinum. Calamistratum or the African onion plant, is slow-growing, but hardy, bulb plant that likes alkaline water. It makes a wonderful centerpiece plant for larger aquariums. Because it has strong, crinkly leaves, it can grow up 4 feet (1.2m) in length. Place the bulb on top of the substrate, and encircle it with rocks or place it in the Easy Planter to prevent it from getting uprooted. Because the water is unfamiliar to the crinum, leaves might melt initially. If you keep the bulb in low to moderate light and don’t move it, it will begin to make long, ruffled tendrils reaching all the way to your water surface.
Amazon sword surrounded by rocks to prevent goldfish from uprooting it
Red flame sword, Amazon sword, and red-melon sword are all sword plant . Their large, wide leaves and broad roots can spread to cover a large-sized aquarium. This pervasive root system allows them to survive being uprooted as long as they are well-established prior to adding African cichlids. Melting may occur initially when the plant introduced to your aquarium, but feed it plenty of root tabs or nutrient-rich substrate and it will soon recover. 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 want to eat everything they can find, the best thing to do is to get emersed plant seeds out of your tank.
Are all plants that have been grown with their leaves above and their roots within 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
These “cichlid-proof plants” are not guaranteed to work. However, we hope they will be useful in 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.