Regardless of the aquarium size, low light aquarium plants are essential for good water chemistry and healthy fish.
If you only visit local pet stores, you may think that you will be very limited in terms of color, size, and shape of the plants.
In fact, when I first started keeping tropical fish, the dismal displays of live plants led me to choose plastic ones instead. Later on, I found out that freshwater plants are every bit as interesting as their more mobile tank mates.
This freshwater aquarium plants guide will reveal everything you need to know about choosing and growing the best plants for your aquarium.
Later on, I will also reveal the top 15 aquarium plants for beginners and advanced aquarium keepers.
4 Reasons to Add Low Light Aquarium Plants to Your Tank
#1. Less Risk of Developing Algae Buildups
Since algae build up is often tied to light density, the lower light levels also help control it. The plants also remove nitrates that algae feed on.
#2. Will Tolerate a Wide Range of Lighting Conditions.
If you decide to try plants that need more light, it helps to have low light plants that will grow in more intense light conditions.
#3. Reduce the Frequency of Water Changes
Many people are surprised when I tell them that I rarely do water changes, and only clean the bottom every few years.
I get away with that, even in tanks under 10 gallons because I make good use of both column and root feeder aquarium plants.
#4. Provide a Safe, Comfortable Environment
Both fast and slow growing aquarium plants stabilize water chemistry, keep the tank clean, and give fish a place to hide.
Why You Need Both Column Feeders and Root Feeders in the Tank
Floating plants, and also some with roots, are referred to as column feeders because they can take in nitrogen through their leaves. They are important to keep in the aquarium because they remove nitrates directly from the water.
By contrast, root feeders can only take in nitrogen and other nutrients through their roots.
Usually you can tell them apart from column feeders by the extent of the root system and the need to be anchored in substrate like gravel, sand, or aquarium soil.
Root feeders are essential because they use nitrates broken down by the bacteria in the gravel.
When combined with the right foods for your fish, you will rarely, if ever have to clean the bottom of the fish tank or do more than top off the tank to replace fluid lost via evaporation.
How to Succeed When Growing Freshwater Aquarium Plants
Even the easiest care aquarium plants need a certain amount of attention if they are to thrive and do a good job of keeping the tank clean.
Here are some basic things that will increase the chance that you will be able to keep your plants alive and thriving for years on end:
Quarantine all plants before adding them to an established tank
This is the only way to make sure you do not introduce fish pathogens with the plants.
You can also use this time to help the plants adapt to the water chemistry in the community tank.
Pay careful attention to where and how the plant should be anchored
This aspect of aquarium grasses and plants is essential because a plant anchored to an incorrect substrate may die from improper nutrient balance.
Be able to recognize the signs of nutrient and light deficiencies
From yellowed leaves to increased shedding, a plant that is not in good condition either has a nutrient problem or one related to light density.
The sooner you make adjustments, the better chance you have of saving the plant.
Be prepared to assist with propagation
If all goes well, your plants will grow well and also begin to make new plants.
Aside from the benefit of getting new aquarium plants for free in your tank, you will not have to worry about losing all your plants if they are at the end of their life cycle.
Common Items You May Want to Keep Onhand
For the most part, low light aquatic plants do not need CO2 supplementation, fertilizers, or trace elements.
That being said, there may be times when the water and fish in the tank simply don’t provide enough nutrients for the plants.
Here are some items you should keep onhand in case you notice your plants aren’t doing as well as they should:
- Root Tabs – These may be necessary in a newly established tank even if it has been cycled properly. As fish waste builds up, there should be more than enough nitrates and other basic nutrients for your plants.
- Liquid Fertilizer – Also useful in a newly established tank.
- Seachem Flourish Excel – The need for trace elements and iron can come up unexpectedly when you are taking care of aquatic plants. This additive offers a fast cure that can save your plants.
- pH, Hardness, Salinity Testing Strips and Adjusters – Useful for adjusting between tank chemistries, and also for troubleshooting when plants aren’t doing as well as expected.
- LED Multi-Spectrum Grow Lights – Some aquatic plants do better when exposed to certain colors of light. LED lights are an inexpensive way to provide different light spectrums as well as increase overall light density without heating up the water.
Top 15 Best Low Light Aquarium Plants
Aponogetons are very prolific plants that grow fast and produce long, soft leaves (up to 12 inches) that fish will love to hide in. Depending on the tank size, Aponogetons are best as mid level and background plants.
These plants are root feeders that will create a massive network through the gravel.
You can use them in tanks with a pH ranging from 6 to 8.
They will do fine with goldfish, fan tails, and Buenos Aires Tetras (yes, these feisty creatures will also eat plants right along with other fish!), provided they already have about a dozen leaves before introducing the fish into the tank.
These plants also don’t mind being snacked on by tiger barbs and other fish that enjoy leafy greens in their diet.
Overall, Aponogetons are very reliable growers that work well in just about any tank. I have gone back to them again and again over the years, and give them the best rating of all the plants listed in this article.
This is a slow to moderately fast growing plant. It has the advantage of being a column feeder, and must be tied to driftwood or some other porous substrate.
Even though they have roots, anchoring them in gravel, sand, or aquarium soil will lead to rotting and death.
Java Ferns are beautiful plants that do well in water with a pH ranging from 6 to 7.5. They will do well in tanks with cichlids.
Since they tend to prefer more acidic water conditions, they will also do well with other fish that are comfortable in this pH range.
Overall, Java Ferns are a good choice for tanks where other plants would not do well. Since they are column feeders, and usually don’t require extra supplementation, I rank them second only to Aponogeton.
If you are looking for a plant that combines root and column feeding, Dwarf Sagittaria may be a good option for you. This plant reaches up to 12” tall, making it useful in both large and small aquariums.
Unlike other plants that will grow faster in moderate to bright light conditions, Dwarf Sagittaria makes more runners in low lighting. Therefore, if you are more interested in a large number of plants as opposed to big plants, you can always control what you get by adjusting the lighting.
Dwarf Sagittaria does well in pH ranges from 6.5 to 7.5 and does not need much in the way of supplementation. If you see yellow leaves, however, you may need to add some iron supplement to the water.
Since Dwarf Sagittaria doesn’t aways grow fast, it is best to avoid using it in tanks with tiger barbs and others that chew on plant leaves. It is a good choice for many other small fish and also fry.
I place Dwarf Sagittaria in the top 3 because it is attractive, very easy to care for, and will withstand a good range of pH levels. Since it is both a column and root feeder, this more than compensates for needing iron supplementation.
This is a very versatile plant that will do well in a wide pH range. It is also a column and root feeder combined that reaches up to 24” tall.
Rate of growth for this plant depends on the water hardness. Brazilian Pennywort will grow faster in soft water, but be stunted by hard water.
Even though this plant can take nutrients from multiple sources, it does not do well in tanks with cichlids, goldfish, or others that disrupt the substrate, or enjoy snacking on leaves.
Brazilian Pennywort may also need iron supplementation to prevent leaf yellowing.
Even though Red Flame Sword plants may have green leaves when they arrive, new growth may come up a bright, eye catching red. This is easily one of the most attractive plants that you can choose for your aquarium.
It will grow between 3 and 11” tall, which makes it good for tanks of just about every size.
Red Flame Swords prefer a water pH ranging from 6.2 to 7.6, and does not require additional supplementation.
This plant will tolerate low light.
Use moderate to bright light to get red leaf growth.
It is, at most, moderate in growth speed, and is a root feeder. As such, it may not do well with fan tails, goldfish, or other that uproot plants or enjoy snacking on them.
This plant is related to Red Flame Sword plants, but does best in a pH ranging from 6.5 to 7.5. It is a slow growing plant (reaches 12 – 20”) that relies on root feeding.
While it will tolerate low light conditions, it does prefer medium to bright light.
Since Amazon Swords do not grow fast, it is best to add snails, or algae eaters to the tank.
This plant does well with small fish and algae eaters as long as they don’t uproot plants. Do not use this plant in tanks with plecos, oscars, cichlids, or dempseys.
If you want a plant that will make a vibrant carpet of grass at the bottom the aquarium, eel grass may be a perfect choice. It will grow only a few inches tall, up to one foot depending on the strain.
When paired with carefully arranged Java Moss (Vesiculari dubyana), you may get something that looks similar to land based landscapes with trees and lawns.
It is best not to use eel grass with goldfish, fan tails, or other fish that pick up gravel or like to dig in the substrate.
Other than that, this plant doesn’t mind being snacked on and will do well with small fish and bottom feeders.
Eel grass prefers water ranging from 7 to 8.5. It will not tolerate acidic water, and is likely to grow slowly in low light conditions.
This aquatic plant may also require root tabs from time to time. As noted earlier, however, the need for supplementation may go down over time as the tank itself builds up waste material in the gravel.
Guppy Grass, or Water Nymph is one of the few plants that thrives in brackish water. As the name implies, it is ideal for guppies and other live bearers. This plant does well in a pH ranging from 6 to 7. You can use it to make walls and carpets.
Since it is very brittle, guppy grass will not do well with larger fish. It can be used as a fast growing dietary supplement for cichlids once it is well established.
Even though this plant grows fast and will tolerate low light levels, it does need CO2 supplementation. If you are looking for a carpet type plant for live bearer tank, it is a good choice. Otherwise, I recommend using eel grass instead.
Coffeefolia do not grow as fast as aponogetons. They reach a size of about 16”, and work well as foreground plants in larger tanks.
You can propagate them via rhizomes and cuttings, which makes them useful for tanks where you have a lot of room to fill up.
Since Anubias don’t grow extremely fast, they won’t do well in tanks with goldfish or other species that like a lot of roughage in their diet. You can still put them with barbs, and some tetras that only snack on plants from time to time.
Anubias tend to grow faster with moderate lighting, but can still survive in low light conditions. This plant does best in a pH ranging from 6.5 to 7.5, and is a root feeder. If this plant does not get enough light, it may need CO2 supplementation.
Even though they are attractive, hearty, and versatile plants, Coffeefolia does not make my top 3 because of the possible need for CO2. It is still an excellent choice for beginners and advanced aquarists that don’t mind using this type of supplement.
Red Ludwigia is a very attractive plant that produces leaves with olive uppers and red on the underside. It does well in water with a pH between 6.5 and 7.5.
Red Ludwigia is also a fast growing plant that is both a root and column feeder.
The main drawbacks for this plant include it requires trace nutrients, iron, and sometimes CO2 supplementation. You may also need medium to intense light if it fails to thrive.
Even though this plant needs to be trimmed to stimulate new side shoots, it is best to avoid placing it in tanks with leaf eaters.
This is another plant that will produce a variety of colors including green, brown, and red. It is a root feeder and often grows very slowly.
You may also have problems getting it to grow since it does not like water chemistry changes.
Crypt Wendtii prefer water with a pH ranging from 6 to 7.5, and usually do not require supplementation.
Since this plant grows slowly, it will not do well at all with leaf eaters or fish that like to dig in the substrate. It is a good choice for fry, small fish, or shy ones.
Water Hyssop is one of the few plants that will make attractive flowers under water. Despite that, it is a slow growing plant that reaches between 7 and 12” tall.
It prefers a pH between 6.8 and 7.2 and does not need additional supplementation.
While it will tolerate low light, it requires bright light to produce red leaves.
This root feeding plant can produce very hard leaves and stems, making it less than ideal for fragile fish. In order to propagate Water Hyssop, you must remove the side shoots manually and replant them.
African Water Ferns are attractive plants that are both root and column feeders. They are very slow growers, however, and cannot be planted directly in the soil. You will need to tie them to driftwood or other porous substrate.
Once established, they will grow up to 22” tall and extend to approximately 8” wide.
This plant prefers a water pH ranging from 7 to 8.
It will tolerate low light conditions as long as you add liquid fertilizer and CO2.
Never use this plant with live bearers or others that require salt in the water. It will also not do well with leaf eaters and plecos. Snails and other algae eaters would be useful for keeping the leaves clean.
If you love land based jade plants, then Moneywort may be worth the effort you put into it. This plant has slightly thinner leaves, but looks just like jades at certain angles.
Brahmi does well in pH ranges from 6.5 to 7.5 and reaches up to 12” tall.
It is a moderately fast grower and is one of the few that will do well with goldfish.
While it will tolerate low light, eventually the stems will rot unless you give it at least moderate light.
Moneywort plants may also need micro nutrients and nitrate supplementation even though they are root feeders.
If you are looking for a unique plant for a large aquarium, the carnivorous waterwheel plant may be perfect for your needs.
This plant requires very soft, peaty water that ranges on the acidic side. It is a column feeder that will also catch mosquito larvae, daphnia, and protozoans. You can use it in outdoor ponds as well as large indoor aquariums.
Since this plant gets fairly large and is carnivorous, I don’t recommend using it with small fish or fry.
It is a good choice for oscars, large tetras, and plecos provided you can find a water chemistry compromise for this plant and the fish.
Some Other Plants You Might Want to Try
Even though the following plants didn’t make my top 15 low light aquarium plants, they may still be of interest because of their shape, coloring, or other features:
- Anubias nana (related to Coffeefolia
- Crypt spiralis
- Marimo balls
- Liverwort (monosolenium tenerum)
- Swamp weed (hygrophila)
- Rotala rotundifolia (related to Red Ludwigia)
I am one of millions of aquarium keepers that made the initial mistake of using plastic plants in my tanks.
After observing fish with serious injuries and making dozens of water changes, I found out that live plants are much better.
Low light aquarium plants will give you the best in terms of creating a healthy living environment for your fish and easy maintenance.