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10 Best Aquarium Plants that Can Grow Without Substrate in 2022 – Reviews & Top Picks

Small aquarium with fish

One of the most fun parts of building an aquarium is filling it with live plants. Unfortunately, it can be hard to pick out plants, and not all plants for tanks are equal in terms of care. In addition, some plants need to be planted in your aquarium’s substrate to grow, which increases their care needs.

However, many aquarium plants can be added to aquariums without needing to be planted in the substrate. This makes them easier for you to add to your aquarium and makes them compatible with aquariums that don’t have a substrate that’s friendly to plants. Here are ten plants you can add to your aquarium that don’t require substrate.

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A Quick Comparison of Our Favorites

Image Product Details
Best Overall
Winner
Hornwort Aquarium Plant Hornwort Aquarium Plant
  • Easy to care for
  • Can be planted or floating
  • Best Value
    Second place
    Java Moss Java Moss
  • Provides good food for fry
  • Never needs to be planted in the substrate
  • Premium Choice
    Third place
    Anubias Nana Aquarium Plant Anubias Nana Aquarium Plant
  • Beautiful
  • Thick leaves are resistant to being eaten
  • Java Fern Aquarium Plant Java Fern Aquarium Plant
  • It can be grown as a potted plant
  • Can attach to rocks or be planted in the substrate
  • Water Lettuce Aquarium Plant Water Lettuce Aquarium Plant
  • Good for cold-water tanks
  • Provides shade for your tank
  • The 30 Best Aquarium Plants that Can Grow Without Substrate

    1. Hornwort Aquarium Plant — Best Overall

    Hornwort

    Aquatic or Amphibious:: Amphibious
    Care Level: Easy

    Hornwort is an excellent plant for beginners that doesn’t have too many care needs. That’s why we chose it as our best overall aquarium plant that doesn’t need substrate. Hornwort is usually found floating on top of the water in the wild, and you can do the same in your home tank.

    However, hornwort can be planted in the substrate and grown as a submerged plant in aquariums; if you ever decide to build a tank that does use a plant-friendly substrate, you can take some of your hornwort plants and plant them in your new tank as well.

    Hornwort grows pretty fast, a feature usually seen as a downside in the wild. But in the aquarium world, this lovely plant will quickly beautify the tank with its presence. Hornwort will also provide a little bit of shade to your tank since it floats on top of the water!

    Pros
    • Can be planted or floating
    • Easy to care for
    Cons
    • May overgrow because of the fast growth rate

    2. Java Moss — Best Value

    Java Moss

    Aquatic or Amphibious:: Aquatic
    Care Level: Moderate

    Java moss is an excellent option for pet parents looking for a submerged plant that doesn’t require substrate. Java moss will attach itself to rocks and driftwood in your tank rather than needing to be planted in the substrate. You can also buy it in bulk, so we chose it as the best aquarium plant that doesn’t need substrate for the money.

    Java moss doesn’t just look lovely in your tank; it’s also beneficial to your fish. For example, Java moss makes a fantastic meal for newly formed fry (very young fish.) Fry are often hard for owners to feed because they aren’t as powerful as the other fish and can get bullied away from food.

    Luckily, Java moss can be an excellent food source for them. Java moss will also provide much-needed shelter from the sun since moss that doesn’t attach to rocks or driftwood will float on top of the water.

    Pros
    • Never needs to be planted in the substrate
    • Provides good food for fry
    Cons
    • Not suitable for cold-water tanks

    3. Anubias Nana Aquarium Plant — Best Premium

    Anubias Nana

    Aquatic or Amphibious:: Aquatic
    Care Level: Easy

    Anubias Nana is the “Nana” variation of the Anubias barteri plant. It attaches itself to driftwood and grows gorgeous, thick, green leaves. Once connected to a piece of driftwood, it grows on its own with very little intervention from humans, making it a great addition to a beginner or experienced aquarium.

    It’s a tough plant that can withstand many conditions and algae-eating fish that may attach themselves to its leaves. It can even handle a lot of plant-eating fish that might look at it as a tasty snack.

    Anubias nana can be a little pricey. So, don’t start grabbing these until you’re sure that fish-keeping is for you.

    Pros
    • Beautiful
    • Thick leaves are resistant to being eaten
    Cons
    • Expensive

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    4. Java Fern

    Java Fern

    Aquatic or Amphibious:: Amphibious
    Care Level: Easy

    Java ferns are named for the Indonesian island of Java, where they come from. Like Anubias Nana, Java ferns like to attach to rocks and driftwood to grow. It generally grows in and around freshwater streams or ponds in the wild.

    The base of the Java fern resembles a stick and must be planted above the substrate. Ideally, this base will attach itself to a rock or a piece of driftwood. Placing the plant near a stone or piece of driftwood will help it find its forever home in your tank.

    Pros
    • Can attach to rocks or be planted in the substrate
    • It can be grown as a potted plant
    Cons
    • Needs warm water

    5. Water Lettuce Aquarium Plant

    Water Lettuce

    Aquatic or Amphibious:: Aquatic
    Care Level: Easy

    Water lettuce is another popular beginner plant because it’s easy to grow. So easy that it has become an invasive species in Florida and has been banned. It’s a floating plant, so it will grow on top of your aquarium and resembles a head of gray-ish green lettuce.

    It’s a surface plant that is good for providing shade and protection from the light in your aquarium since it will grow at the water’s surface. It’s best suited to cold water fish tanks but can be successfully introduced to tropical tanks.

    Pros
    • Provides shade for your tank
    • Good for cold-water tanks
    Cons
    • Banned in Florida

    6. Green Cabomba Aquarium Plant

    Green Cabomba

    Aquatic or Amphibious:: Amphibious
    Care Level: Moderate

    Green cabomba is another excellent floating plant for aquariums. Like hornwort, green cabomba can be planted in a plant-friendly substrate and grown as a submerged plant. However, you can also grow green cabomba as a floating plant using liquid fertilizer to stimulate its rapid growth rate.

    Green cabomba is a little more intensive of a plant than some others on the list. To grow properly, it requires warm water—ideally between 72° and 82° Fahrenheit. You can also have a green cabomba float on top of your aquarium and grow!

    Pros
    • Can be planted as a background plant or left to float
    • Responds well to liquid fertilizer
    Cons
    • May overgrow because of the fast growth rate

    7. Duckweed

    Duckweed

    Aquatic or Amphibious:: Aquatic
    Care Level: Easy

    Duckweed is a low-maintenance plant perfect for beginner fishkeepers or lazy fishkeepers. There are no secrets to growing duckweed, you just sort of put it in the tank and let it float there, and it will grow.

    Duckweed grows extremely fast, so some aquarists dislike it and view it as a virulent pest plant. But those who love duckweed cannot be swayed away from this easy-to-care-for surface plant.

    Aside from being easy to grow, duckweed can also provide the necessary shade to your tank. Just be sure it doesn’t overgrow and prevent your other plants from getting their essential sunlight.

    Pros
    • Low-maintenance
    • Surface plants provide shade
    Cons
    • Some consider it to be a pest plant

    8. Floating Crystalwort Aquarium Plant

    Floating Crystalwort

    Aquatic or Amphibious:: Aquatic
    Care Level: Easy

    Floating crystalwort, or Riccia fluitans, rose to popularity when the famous aquarist Takashi Amano began tying the plants to his driftwood and rocks. Like Java moss, floating crystalwort is a moss plant that will attach itself to solid structures to grow.

    Floating crystalwort does need a fair bit of light to grow properly. So, shady tanks are not the place to put this plant. However, it’s a straightforward plant to care for as it can withstand a wide variety of water conditions, making it excellent for beginners and experienced aquarists.

    Its ideal tank temperature is between 56° and 86° Fahrenheit, a wide range that encompasses both cold and warm-water tanks. Liquid fertilizers are recommended to encourage healthy growth for this plant.

    Pros
    • Can be left to float, tied to rocks, or planted as a foreground carpet
    • Withstands a wide range of tank conditions
    Cons
    • Requires proper lighting if kept as a submerged plant

    9. Ludwigia Repens

    Ludwigia repens

    Aquatic or Amphibious:: Aquatic
    Care Level: Easy

    Ludwigia repens is an excellent plant to add a little color to any aquarium since it comes in many colors. In addition, Ludwiga repens will grow whether you plant it on a substrate or allow it to float freely in your aquarium. So, this is great for any aquariums that don’t have a plant-friendly substrate.

    Ludwiga repens doesn’t have any special care needs, making it great for beginners. However, experienced fishkeepers can supplement the plant’s CO2 to get the leaves to turn a gorgeous red color that will add a splash of color to your aquascape.

    Pros
    • Multiple color options
    • Can be planted or float freely
    Cons
    • Maintaining a red plant requires supplemental CO2

    10. Rotala Indica

    Rotala indica

    Aquatic or Amphibious:: Aquatic
    Care Level: Moderate

    Rotala Indica is a fragile but gorgeous plant that can be planted in a plant-friendly substrate or allowed to float freely. Unfortunately, because it’s a delicate plant, it won’t be suitable for tanks with aggressive fish that may damage or kill the plant. Instead, this is best for tanks with fish that will be gentle and respect the plant.

    Additionally, Rotala indica does require strong lighting. Indoor tanks will need a light that provides at least 3–5 watts of power to their plant. It’s also a tropical plant. Your tank will need a heater that keeps the water at a temperature of at least 72° Fahrenheit for the plant to thrive.

    Pros
    • Beautiful plant
    • Can be planted in a plant-friendly -substrate if needed
    Cons
    • Fragile

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    Buyer’s Guide: Choosing the Best Aquarium Plants that Can Grow Without Substrate

    When buying aquarium plants, you want to ensure that your fish and plants will be compatible. Both fish and plants are alive and have care needs that must be considered when housing them together. Research the plants and fish you intend to keep thoroughly to ensure compatibility.

    When building an aquarium, you create a closed ecosystem filled with plants and animals. This means that all the ecosystem members must function within the ecosystem to provide for themselves and each other.

    In a water ecosystem, plants provide oxygen to the water, and fish provide carbon dioxide. The fish and plants have unique needs but provide for each other. So, it’s essential to ensure that the members of your ecosystem can thrive together and won’t hurt each other.

    variegated anubias plant in aquarium
    Image Credit: Pavaphon Supanantananont, Shutterstock

    Temperature

    Plants grow at different temperatures, and each plant has different temperature needs. Keeping plants at the wrong temperatures will stunt their growth or even kill them. This is true of fish as well. So, you must know what temperature your ecosystem will be kept at.

    For instance, Clown Killifish can be kept in a cold-water tank without a heater, but Rotala indica requires a warm-water tank that stays at a temperature of at least 72°F. So if you have a cold-water tank with no heater, you can’t keep Rotala indica in it.

    Water Hardness

    “Water hardness” refers to the mineral content dissolved in water. Some plants can tolerate hard water, while others will wilt. This is true of fish as well. You can’t keep plants and fish that require soft water in hard water and vice versa. Ensure that your water is appropriately hard or soft for your ecosystem to thrive.

    pH Balance

    Different plants and fish also have different acidity needs for their environments. Some plants need to be kept in an acidic environment, while others thrive in an alkaline environment. Ensure that your plants have compatible pH needs.

    Light Requirements

    You also want to make sure that you buy plants with compatible light requirements. While all plants need light, they need different amounts. In addition, some plants can be damaged by receiving too much light. So, you’ll want to make sure that you can provide the correct amount of light without providing too much.

    Minimum Tank Size

    Plants also have minimum space requirements to grow and thrive. They are living creatures that require space to live. Therefore, you want to ensure that your plants are in a big enough tank for themselves and in conjunction with the other plants you have in your tank.

    anubias nana in aquarium
    Image Credit: Amazon

    Fish Compatibility

    It’s also essential for your fish to be compatible with your plants. While most fish owners will feed their fish daily, some fish will eat the plants in the tank. Many plants will be able to thrive even if there are aggressive fish, plant-eaters, or algae-eating fish that may attach to them. However, some plants are more delicate and will wilt. Ensure that your tank has a thriving ecosystem by choosing compatible fish and plants.

    Substrate Needs

    While this list focuses on plants that don’t require a substrate to be planted in, buying plants means ensuring that they will be able to thrive in your tank. While you may leave plants floating in your tank, some of those floating plants could later be planted in your tank’s substrate. Therefore, ensure that your substrate is suitable for the plants you want to buy before you buy them.

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    Final Thoughts

    Picking out plants is a fun and exciting part of aquarium-keeping. Try buying some Hornwort plants for the best overall plant that can be planted without substrate. If you want to get a lot of bang for your buck, Java moss is a great option that you can buy in bulk. Last but certainly not least, Anubias nana is an excellent premium option.


    Featured Image Credit: Musca Cristian, Unsplash

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