Not all aquarium plants are created equal. While every aquarium needs a good selection of plants, they in turn need a light source to grow and thrive. This can be a real conundrum for low-light aquarium owners because you need plants that thrive in low-light levels.
If you are setting up a low-light aquarium system and are looking for beautiful aquatic plants to include, look no further. We created reviews on the best low-light aquarium plants to look for and provided tips for buying plants that thrive in low-light conditions.
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The 7 Best Low-Light Aquarium Plants
1. Anubias Barteri — Best Overall
|Low light, fertilization, no additional CO2
The Anubias Barteri is easy to care for and thrives in a wide range of temperatures. It can be partially or fully submerged and is tolerant of low-light conditions. Its pointed leaves look great in aquarium foregrounds and backgrounds. These qualities make it our recommendation as the best overall low-light aquarium plant.
This plant is a root feeder, so your substrate will need to have plenty of space for it to put down roots. However, this plant’s maximum size is only about 16 inches.
2. Java Moss (Vesicularia dubyana) — Best Value
|Beginner plant, no extra care required
The best low-light aquarium plant for the money is Java Moss or Vesicularia dubyana. This moss is extremely hardy and easy to care for. It blankets the bottom of aquariums in green, and since it’s a column feeder, you can grow it on just about any surface, including rocks, driftwood, and substrate.
Java moss tolerates a wide variety of water temperatures and can be grown as a “lawn” on your tank bottom or in small patches. It grows quickly but reaches a maximum height of only a few inches. Better yet, it is compatible with almost every freshwater fish there is.
3. Cryptocoryne — Premium Choice
There are a few different varieties of Cryptocoryne, but they’re hard to find outside of specialty stores. This rarity makes them expensive, which is why it is a premium choice.
Cryptocoryne is relatively easy to care for, but it requires stable aquarium conditions. It does best in low-light tanks, as it grows longer leaves than it would with high amounts of lighting. Each leaf can reach up to 18 inches in length if light exposure is minimized.
Since it doesn’t do well adjusting to new conditions, the biggest challenge to growing Cryptocoryne is when it’s first planted. It takes about a week for the plant to adapt, and it sometimes appears as if it’s dying in the meantime. As a root-feeding plant, it requires a high-grain substrate to flourish.
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4. Rotala Rotundifolia
Rotala Rotundifolia is a column-feeding plant that gets its nutrients by absorbing them through its leaves. This plant’s growth isn’t limited, and it will grow toward the top of your tank over time. While this plant is quite tolerant of changing conditions, it’s not recommended for beginner aquarium owners. It grows best in low lighting with limited nitrate availability.
Rotala Rotundifolia requires extensive trimming if you don’t want it to grow into dense bushes that take over your aquarium. This plant dies out from the bottom up, so the stems will need to be re-planted from time to time when the undergrowth dies off.
5. Parrot’s Feather (Myriophyllum aquaticum)
|Hardy, low light
The lush blue-and-green leaves of the Parrot’s Feather extend from stems that anchor to the bottom of your aquarium. This plant is ideal for tanks with fish that like to hide, as its foliage is dense and provides significant coverage.
As a root feeder, it needs a high-nutrient substrate to grow, so it’s usually best to supplement it regularly with fertilizer. It grows best in finely-grained substrates that mimic natural soil or mud found on the edge of ponds.
6. Moneywort (Bacopa)
Moneywort is the ideal low-light aquarium plant for small tanks because it only grows to about 12 inches in height. It’s capable of extending above the water surface if necessary, and it’s easy to care for. Moneywort can be left to grow or trimmed down to keep it contained. It’s tolerant of almost any lighting condition, but it will need to be kept in water temperatures between 72 and 82 degrees Fahrenheit.
7. Anubias Nana
|Leaf, attaches to rock or stone
|Low light, hardy, low to medium pH levels, fertilizer
Anubias Nana has dark-green, pointy leaves that will form a tight-knit formation at the base of your tank. It is an easy plant to care for and good for beginners due to its tolerance to changes in water temperature and light conditions. It can grow in most types of water but grows better with fertilizer than without.
As a root feeder, this plant will need substrate to grow in as opposed to gravel, and you’ll need to provide extra nutrients if you don’t have organic matter falling to the tank bottom.
Buyer’s Guide: How to Pick the Best Low Light Aquarium Plants
Column Feeders vs. Root Feeders
Column feeder vs. root feeder is an important distinction when shopping for aquarium plants because not all aquariums will be set up to support root feeders adequately. Column feeders, on the other hand, can grow in almost any aquarium space.
Column feeders: Column-feeding plants take in nutrition through their leaves. They don’t have roots and often float above the substrate. It’s a more diverse plant because it doesn’t require a nutrient-rich substrate to grow.
Root feeders: Root feeders take in nutrition from their roots, so they require a nutrient-rich substrate. However, they anchor into the substrate and stay in one place rather than floating loose in the tank.
How Much Light Do Low-Light Aquarium Plants Require?
While the secret to keeping a healthy aquarium is often having strong lighting for plants to grow and thrive, this isn’t always the case. The quality of light plays a role in your plant’s growth, as do CO2 levels, nutrient availability, water quality, and fish compatibility. Choosing your plants carefully according to the available tank conditions can make all the difference between having healthy plants and plants that die quickly.
So, what exactly is “low light”? Plants need light to perform photosynthesis, so it’s important to understand that low light doesn’t mean no light at all. Many aquariums do come with stock fluorescent lighting, but it is typically insufficient for supporting plant life. While these lights do a good job of letting you view fish, they don’t provide enough quality lighting to support photosynthesis.
What Type of Light Is Best?
LED aquarium lighting is the most popular option, and there are thousands of options to choose from. In general, good lights will have bulbs that range from 5,000K to 10,000K with a spectrum of red and green wavelengths.
Your fish aren’t likely to care which light you choose, but ultra-bright lights can make fish shyer and don’t replicate the natural dark water that many species originate from. Low-lighting conditions are better for certain species of plants and fish.
Can Aquarium Plants Survive With Only Natural Sunlight?
In theory, yes. Plants survive in the wild with only natural sunlight, after all, even when there are cloudy or rainy weeks. The problem with natural sunlight in aquariums is that it is a much smaller system. Fluctuations in nature are easily corrected to maintain balance, whereas aquariums don’t adjust as quickly. Two problems can occur when using natural sunlight for aquarium plants: They get too much light or they don’t get enough.
An aquarium that gets too much light will have frequent algae blooms. Since you can’t turn off the light, you’ll have to deal with algae choking out your plants, getting caught in your equipment, and creating health problems in your fish. You’ll also have to clean up the unsightly goo that it leaves behind.
Plants will also droop and “melt” when they get too much light, and it can cause your water temperature to increase. This leads to overheating for plants and fish alike.
If you live in a region of the world that experiences four seasons, there is often not enough natural sunlight during the winter to support an aquarium. In this case, it will receive too little light for a few months, and some plants simply can’t survive drastic fluctuations. It’s not impossible to have a healthy aquarium in these conditions, so you need to carefully select plants tolerant of low-light conditions and fluctuations in water temperature.
Looking at aquatic plants that thrive in your geographical area can be a good place to start figuring out what you can successfully grow. If you want to keep non-native species, you may have to go through a bit of trial and error. If you’re willing to take the time to figure out what works best in your aquarium, it is definitely worthwhile.
We believe that the best overall low-light aquarium plant is Anubias Barteri. This tolerant plant is easy to care for and provides beautiful foliage in any part of your tank. The best low-light aquarium plant for the money is Java Moss. It’s also a great choice for beginner aquarium owners because it grows just about anywhere and requires no extra care. Our premium choice is Cryptochorine. This plant thrives in ultra-low-light conditions, and the less light that you give it, the bigger the leaves get. Unfortunately, this plant requires stable water conditions and is expensive because it’s hard to find.
- You may also be interested in: 9 Best Flowering Plants for Aquariums