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. 1) Many omnivorous and herbivorous Cichlids, like the mbunas, love to eat plants and 2) many of them enjoy digging to create spawning areas which inadvertently causes plants to be uprooted. 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. We spent years searching for “cichlid-proof plants” and have spent many hours experimenting with them. Find out the top 10 plants that have survived the test of time and are compatible with 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. Aside from being quick growers, aquatic plants can also absorb large quantities of nitrates, phosphate and other nutrients, helping to purify 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 on the water surface
Hornwort (Ceratophyllum desmersum) is a floating herb we have had great success with. They are the most notorious of all African cichlid plant-eaters. Although they look soft, their pine needle-like leaves can be quite tough and have a slight serrated edge. Hornwort is fast-growing and can be eaten by some African cichlids. Important to know is that hornwort can be very destructive to aquariums. It will shed its fine needles when it runs low on nutrients. Our full care guide has more information about hornwort.
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. If given enough light, it can grow quite 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, another type of plant, doesn’t need a substrate. It is attached to rocks, driftwood, and decorations to keep them from being knocked about too often. You can fasten them to objects using fishing line, sewing thread, or even super glue gel. You can attach your epiphyte to a basket by placing a root tab in the rock wool. Then, slip the basket into an Easy Planter rock decoration. A lot of epiphyte plants have an rhizome (or horizontal root). If you do not want to cover the rhizome with substrate or glue, it can 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 recommend larger species, such as Anubias coffeefolia and Anubias barteri. They have thick, tough leaves and strong rhizomes, which can take a beating.
Anubias inside an Easy Planter decoration
Java Ferns look similar to anubias due to their ease of care, low light requirements and long-lasting 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. Although epiphytes are slower than floating plants, bolbitis is able to grow into a large bush that can dominate any medium-sized tank.
Java moos (Taxiphyllum Barbieri) is slow-growing, but tough moss. It looks stunning when attached to rocks and other driftwood. Some of the moss can be attached to a wire mesh to make a fuzzy carpet, or even a 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, there are a few species of plants that can be kept grounded by fish that dig for food or establish spawning sites.
A forest of vallisneria
Vallisneria can be found in Lake Tanganyika as a wild plant. It thrives in higher pH and higher GH. There are several varieties sold in the hobby, such as Vallisneria spiralis and its larger cousin Vallisneria americana. This grass-like, tall plant blocks aggression by blocking line of vision. Plus, it proliferates quite rapidly and can transform your fish tank into an underwater jungle for your fish to weave in and out of. For extra protection, we like to leave the vallisneria inside their original plastic pots with a few root tabs. 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. The full article explains how to set up an African Cichlid Tank with Vallisneria.
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. To prevent the bulb from being thrown away, place it on top of the substrate. The crinum may not be used to your water conditions and the leaves may start to melt. The bulb will grow long, ruffled tendrils if it is kept in a low-to-medium light environment.
Amazon sword surrounded by rocks to prevent goldfish from uprooting it
Sword plants, like the red flame sword, red Amazon sword and red melon blade, get the nickname “tank busters” due to their large leaves and long roots that can take over an entire aquarium of medium size. They can be easily rooted if they have established roots before 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. We prefer to use the Easy Planter instead. This allows the decorations and rockwork to be moved easily as the plant grows.
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.
We have grown all the plants with their leaves above water and their roots below water. The aquarium allows the plants to draw nutrients and keeps the leaves safe from hungry fish. 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
Although none of these plants are guaranteed to be cichlid-proof, we do hope at least some of them will work in African cichlid tanks. 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.