One of the easiest ways to make your fish tank look less like a glass box and more like a slice of nature is to cover the back wall with a lush forest of tall aquarium plants. Check out these 10 beginner-friendly background plants that grow to 12 inches (30 cm) or more.
Before we begin, remember that most of these plants are grown emersed (or above water) at the plant farms, so when you bring them into your aquarium, their original leaves may melt away since the plants must grow new leaves that are used to being submersed (or underwater). Therefore, do not be alarmed if your newly purchased background plant looks like it’s wilting; leave it in the tank and it should start producing new leaves within 2 to 4 weeks.
We often call Vallisneria spiralis the “one-plant wonder” because it can transform your fish tank into a field of tall grasses, gently waving in the current. Even in low to medium light, it readily sends out new shoots or runners in the substrate that can quickly fill your tank. As one of the tallest plants on our list, we’ve successfully used it to break up line of sight when keeping more aggressive fish like African cichlids. If you’re looking for a thicker, taller version to put in your pond or large aquarium, consider using jungle val or Vallisneria americana. For more information, read our full care guide on val.
This unique plant has the nickname “octopus” because each node on its stem produces four, bright green leaves that look like wispy tendrils flowing in the water. Pogostemon plants in general are great for filling out large areas of your tank, as well as providing cover for shy fish and babies. When the plant is tall enough to reach the water surface, you can easily propagate it by pruning the top half and replanting it deeply into the substrate. The trimming will produce roots and become a new plant, while the old plant will continue growing from where you cut it.
Hydrocotyle leucocephala is another unusual-looking species, known for its flat, circular leaves that look like little umbrellas growing on a vine. It appreciates medium to high light, so try planting it directly under your aquarium light or even floating it at the surface. If the Brazilian pennywort gets too long and tangled, just trim off a few sections and the plant will grow new stems, creating a bushier appearance overall. These clippings can be propagated by inserting them in the ground or floating them in the water.
If you’re looking for a really dense plant to increase the survival rate of your fish babies, water sprite or Ceratopteris thalictroides is one of our favorites to use. Its lacy, yellow-green leaves are perfect for fry to hide in between while preventing hungry adults from reaching them. Because water sprite grows so quickly, it is also useful for purifying the water by absorbing the toxic nitrogen compounds produced by your fish’s waste. As with many stem plants, you can grow it in the substrate or floating at the water surface.
One of the most well-known plants in the aquarium hobby is the Amazon sword or Echinodorus amazonicus. While some background plants like vallisneria are tall and narrow in profile, sword plants have big, board leaves and can grow into giant bushes. They prefer to feed from their roots rather than the water column, so provide them with nutrient-rich substrate or plenty of root tab fertilizers in the ground. Once they are large enough, they may start producing side shoots that become new plantlets. To add more variety in color to your planted tank, try the red flame sword that comes with green, red, and bronze mottled leaves.
Stem plants like Bacopa caroliniana are known for their clusters of oval-shaped leaves and long stems won’t stop growing until they reach the water surface. The closer the leaves are to the light, the more their colors change from green to yellow to reddish-bronze. Moneywort or Bacopa monnieri is a similar stem plant with smaller, rounded leaves and sturdy, straight stems that stay bright green. Both plants can be propagated by pruning the stems to the desired height and replanting the trimmings.
Hemianthus micranthemoides is such a versatile species because it can be used as a foreground, midground, or background plant, depending on what height you trim it. It looks like a miniature version of bacopa with a thin stem and tiny, oblong leaves. When you get a bunch of them growing in medium to high light conditions, they form a dense mass that is perfect for nano fish, shrimp, and fry to use as shelter. As with most stem plants, you can proliferate them by snipping off the long ends and replanting them in the substrate.
Scarlet temple is one of the shorter background plants on this list, but it’s worth mentioning because of its vibrant pink and red-colored leaves that really pop in the midst of other green aquarium plants. This is a species that appreciates medium to high light because the brighter the lighting, the more likely you will see those deep reds and even purples in its foliage. Feed it good nutrients like Easy Green and Easy Iron for optimal growth.
Nymphaea zenkeri is a gorgeous plant with red and green leaves that can easily become the statement piece of your aquarium. Not only does it produce large, variegated leaves in the water, but it also sends up lily pads to the surface. To plant your tiger lotus, make sure to place the bulb on top of or only partially buried halfway into the substrate. Burying the entire bulb can cause the plant to die. Once the bulb sprouts, it will send roots down into the ground to anchor itself and grow leaves to start absorbing light.
Need a background plant that can stand up to goldfish and African cichlids? The African onion plant is a bulb plant that produces very long and tough, ruffled leaves with a dark green coloration. It’s a very slow grower, so once you plant the bulb on top of or partially in the ground, make sure not to move it or disturb the surrounding substrate. You can even place it in an Easy Planter decoration to make sure no fish will uproot it. Keep it happy with medium to high light, and watch it become the centerpiece of your planted tank.
Need more ideas for live aquarium plants? Check out our collection of easy, beginner-friendly plants that we’ve had the most success growing in our fish tanks. Have fun picking out your favorite background plants and enjoy nature daily.
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