10 Easy Plants for African Cichlid Aquariums
When you think of the stereotypical aquarium for African cichlids, it usually has a somewhat barren appearance consisting of sand, rockwork, and maybe 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. Therefore, we have spent years experimenting with and searching for the most “cichlid-proof” plants. Learn about the top 10 easy plants that have survived the gauntlet and do well with our 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. Plus, they are known for being fast growers that suck up tons of nitrate and phosphate, helping to purify the 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 (Ceratophyllum demersum) is a floating plant we’ve had great success with our mbunas — the most notorious plant eaters among African cichlids. They look fluffy but their pine needle-like leaves are very tough and slightly serrated. While some African cichlids may try to nibble on them or tear off a chunk, hornwort grows so rapidly that the damage is hardly noticeable. 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. For more information on hornwort, see our full care guide.
Cabomba (Cabomba spp.) is a stem plant that can also be grown by floating it 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.
An epiphyte is another type of plant that does not need any substrate to grow and is often attached to rock, driftwood, or decorations to prevent them from being knocked around too much. You can fasten them to objects using fishing line, sewing thread, or even super glue gel. If your newly purchased epiphyte comes inside a plastic basket, you can place a root tab inside the rock wool and then slip the basket inside an Easy Planter rock decoration. Many epiphyte plants have a rhizome (or horizontal stem), so be careful not to bury the rhizome in substrate or cover it with too much glue, or else it may begin to deteriorate.
Anubias plants are very popular because they are beginner friendly, enjoy low light, and come in a wide assortment of shapes and sizes. 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 are similar to anubias because of their easy care, low light requirements, and durable leaves. Some of the most common varieties include regular java fern, Windelov (or lace) java fern, and narrow leaf java fern. They are easy to propagate by either (1) splitting the rhizome into two halves or (2) cutting off a leaf and letting little plantlets sprout from the black dots on the leaf’s underside.
Bolbitis (Bolbitis heudelotii) is a gorgeous epiphyte with textured, vivid green leaves that can grow very large and serve as a background plant. Also known as the African water fern, it does well in waters with high pH and GH that African cichlids usually prefer. Most epiphyte plants are slow growers compared to floating plants, but given enough time, bolbitis can develop into an impressive bush that would dominate even a medium-sized tank.
Java moss (Taxiphyllum barbieri) is a slow-growing but hardy moss that looks beautiful when attached to rocks and driftwood. Some of them are sold already affixed to a wire mesh, which can be used to grow a fuzzy carpet or moss wall. Unlike the previous three plants, java moss does not have a rhizome or roots but rather spreads by growing “sticky” rhizoids that grip onto 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, we know a few species that can work, as long as you follow some tips and tricks to keep them grounded.
A forest of vallisneria
Vallisneria is one of the few plants found growing in the wild in Lake Tanganyika and does well with higher pH and GH. There are several varieties sold in the hobby, such as Vallisneria spiralis and its larger 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. For more information on how to set up an African cichlid tank with vallisneria, read the full article.
Crinum calamistratum, known as the African onion plant, is a slow-growing bulb plant that enjoys hard, alkaline water. It’s a great centerpiece plant for bigger aquariums because it has tough, crinkly leaves that can grow up to 4 feet (1.2 m) long. Place the bulb on top of the substrate, and encircle it with rocks or place it in the Easy Planter to prevent it from getting uprooted. The leaves may melt at first because the crinum is not accustomed to your water conditions. 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 and red flame 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. Melting may occur initially when the plant introduced to your aquarium, but feed it plenty of root tabs or nutrient-rich substrate and it will soon recover. Instead of using the Easy Planter, we prefer a barrier of rockwork or decorations so they can be easily moved as the plant grows bigger and bigger.
If your cichlids are bound and determined to eat every last bit of vegetation they find, then your best course of action is to grow emersed plants out of the tank. Pothos (Epipremnum aureum), lucky bamboo (Dracaena sanderiana), and mangroves are all plants that we have grown with their leaves above the water and their roots in the water. This allows the plants to continue drawing nutrients from the aquarium, while keeping the foliage safe from hungry mouths. 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 sprouting roots in water without 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.