10 Easy Plants for African Cichlid Aquariums
If you look at the typical aquarium for African cichlids it will often have a rather barren appearance. It may consist of sand and rockwork as well as 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. At Aquarium Co-Op, we’re all about aquarium plants because of their natural beauty and ability to absorb nitrogen waste, which constantly builds up in African cichlid tanks that are purposely overcrowded to reduce aggression. We have spent many years researching and testing the best “cichlid-proof” plants. Discover the top 10 easiest plants that have survived and performed well with 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 the water surface
Hornwort is a floating plant that we’ve had great success growing with our mbunas, the most notorious African cichlids. Although they look soft, their pine needle-like leaves can be quite tough and have a slight serrated edge. Hornwort is fast-growing and can be eaten by some African cichlids. 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.) This stem plant can also be grown by floating the plant 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. 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, another type of plant, doesn’t need a substrate. It is attached to rocks, driftwood, and decorations to keep them from being knocked about too often. You can fasten them to objects using fishing line, sewing thread, or even super glue gel. You can attach your epiphyte to a basket by placing a root tab in the rock wool. Then, slip the basket into an Easy Planter rock 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 are very common because they are easy to grow, are low-light friendly and come in many sizes and shapes. 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
Java Ferns look similar to anubias due to their ease of care, low light requirements and long-lasting leaves. The most popular varieties are the regular Java fern, Windelov (or “lace”) java-fern, and the narrow leaf java-fern. You can either split the rhizome in two or cut off a leaf to make little plantlets.
Bolbitis (Bolbitis heudelotii) is a gorgeous epiphyte with textured, vivid green leaves that can grow very large and serve as a background plant. It is also known as the African waterfern. It thrives in high-GH and pH waters that African cichlids prefer. Although epiphytes are slower than floating plants, bolbitis is able to grow into a large bush that can dominate any medium-sized tank.
Java Moss (Taxiphyllum barieri) is a slow-growing, hardy moss which looks great when attached to rocks or 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 for vallisneria
Vallisneria, one of few plants that can be grown in the wild at Lake Tanganyika, is able to tolerate higher pH and GH. Many varieties are available for sale in the hobby, including Vallisneria spiralis and its bigger cousin Vallisneria americana. This grass-like plant grows very tall and does an excellent job of blocking line of sight to minimize 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. The full article explains how to set up an African Cichlid Tank with Vallisneria.
Crinum calomistratum also known as African onion plant is a slow-growing bulb plants that prefers alkaline water. This plant is a great choice for large aquariums as it can grow to 4 feet (1.2m) in length. 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
are all plants that we have grown with their leaves above the water and their 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 spouting roots in water with no 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.