Live Plants in Dwarf Cichlid Aquariums

Aquarium with plants in clay pots and attached to the tank bottom

Live plants provide many benefits in dwarf cichlid aquariums.  They improve water quality by providing excellent surfaces for beneficial nitrifying bacteria.  They can directly remove some waste compounds from the water. and can be efficient particulate filters that help keep the water crystal clear. Plants provide color and excitement to a tank’s decor while benefitting the fish in many ways.

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Introduction to Planted Dwarf Cichlid Aquariums

I love live plants in my dwarf cichlid tanks. I have plants in all of my tanks and some are thick with vegetation. Since my tanks are usually only viewed by me, I don’t worry about the aesthetics of the tank. This is not to say that my tanks aren’t impressive as most visitors comment more on my plants than my fish. I only mean that I aquascape my tanks only for practical benefits – hiding places, open clearings, secluded cave locations, barriers to sightlines, etc. As you view the photos on this website you’ll see that almost every fish photo includes extensive plantings.

While it’s true that many or most cichlids don’t do well with planted aquaria, dwarf cichlids usually have no problems. Apistogramma and other South American species thrive in planted tanks as do the West African genera of Pelvicachromis, Nanochromis, and others. Dwarf cichlids will typically not dig enough to dislodge rooted plants and the soft, acidic water dwarf cichlids prefer is perfect for many plant species. Plants and dwarf cichlids are a natural combination.

While I’m extolling the virtues of planted tanks I don’t want to imply that you have to have plants. I think they are great for many reasons but many hobbyists have no problems using tanks with no live plants. In fact, many dwarf cichlids come from waters where there are few if any aquatic plants. As with most aspects of keeping dwarf cichlids, you’ll have to figure out for yourself if you want a few plants, lots of plants, or no plants at all.

lushly planted aquarium showing floating and rooted plants extending from bottom to top

This website is about what works for me. These are the techniques and practices that I’ve developed in 50 years of keeping and breeding dwarf cichlids. I’m not suggesting that my methods are the best way and certainly not the only way. I’m saying that this is what works for me. Others may suggest methods that work far better for you and I believe the best method is what works for you. Trial and error have been my teachers and over the years, I’ve tried a lot of different plants and techniques. The following is what works for me. You need to learn through experience what works for you.

Benefits of live plants

Live plants provide many benefits including:

  • Live plants absorb some of the ammonia, nitrates, and nutrients produced through fish waste and by the decomposition of uneaten food which improves water quality and can help reduce algae growth.
  • Plants produce oxygen and consume carbon dioxide during daylight hours and release carbon dioxide at night. This helps to oxygenate the water and stabilize the water chemistry.
  • Plants can provide the complex habitats that dwarf cichlids need to feel secure. Caves, rocks, and driftwood are all great but plants can be used in many ways to create complexity. Thickets of plants are great for breaking up the line of sight and creating secluded areas.
  • Many plants and plant parts are eaten by fish either intentionally or incidentally as they sift through the substrate looking for food.
  • Plants provide a rich environment for the microorganisms that young fish feed upon.  
  • Plants provide the overhead cover that makes dwarf cichlids feel secure.  In the wild many dangers come at the fish from overhead so they are especially attuned to threats from above.
  • Besides providing overhead cover, floating plants will cut the amount of light that penetrates and many dwarfs prefer subdued light.

Caring for live plants

Despite these great benefits, many aquarists do not keep live plants in their tanks.  While some have legitimate reasons for not using live plants, I believe most people just don’t believe they can keep plants alive in their tanks. Most dwarf cichlid aquarists should be able to succeed in growing live plants.  The conditions we create for our fish are great conditions for many different plants and I believe that any successful dwarf cichlid keeper can succeed with at least some plants.

Keeping live plants can be very simple or very complex.  From doing nothing but randomly adding plants to your tank to setting up elaborate systems with CO2 injection and high output lights there is a level of keeping plants for every fish keeper.  I always preach that the reason we keep fish is to find some satisfaction for ourselves. Consequently, we each need to find what gives us the most enjoyment and pursue it.  I have the same philosophy about growing plants and, although I love a beautifully aquascaped show tank, I prefer to keep my tanks thick with easy-to-grow plants.

Basically, I’m a lazy plant tender and like to grow plants I don’t have to pay special attention to. I never try to change my water for the plants so they must thrive or at least tolerate the soft fairly acidic water in my tanks. They must be adaptable to fairly low light levels and must do well in the mid to upper 70°F range  Fortunately there are lots of plants that will do well in these conditions.  

I usually have six or seven different types of plants growing in my tanks and I have a simple method for selecting the species I keep.  I buy different kinds and try to grow them. If they grow and reproduce I keep growing them and if they die then I don’t.  While this might sound obvious, I’ve found it works very well for me as I now have a number of reliable plants that always produce a surplus.

floating watersprite leaves cover the surface of an aquarium
These floating water sprite leaves nearly cover the entire surface of this aquarium. Several different size plants are shown and soon the leaves will begin to overlap which will significantly shade the lower levels of the tank.


The light you provide is often key to plant growth and algae problems. While intensity is important, the spectrum of light you use will have a dramatic impact on the growth of both plants and algae. Full-spectrum lights come closest to matching natural daylight and are best for plant growth/Unfortunately, there is no exact definition of what full-spectrum is. and bulbs with color temperatures ranging from 5,000K – 6,500K are generally considered full spectrum. I personally prefer lights that are about 6,000K but most standard bulbs some only in cooler 5,000K or warmer 6,500K. I normally use the 6,500K light but I will mix the lights when I can. In my tanks, I get more algae growth when I use cooler-colored lights. However, you might have a different experience. I’ve found that changing lighting conditions can really impact algae growth. This is especially important with fluorescent bulbs as their outp[ut spectrum will often shift significantly as they age.

Water Conditions

All of my tanks are filled with pure reverse osmosis (RO) water that is very soft and slightly acidic (pH 6.0 – 6.5) while other tanks are more acidic, some as low as pH 4.5. These are challenging water conditions for many plants and some just won’t survive. However, there are lots of species that thrive in these water conditions providing a number of very good options. Most plants tolerate a wide range of temperatures although their growth may change in very cool or warm conditions.

I don’t recommend trying to change water conditions to benefit your fish and I’m even less supportive of trying to change water conditions for plants. Instead, change to plants that will grow in your water instead of trying to change the water to suit the plants.


Different types of plants have different requirements for planting. Some have no roots at all and either float or become anchored onto some hard surface. Others have lots of roots but do best with the roots not buried and some plants have strong root systems that need a thick substrate to grow in. While I recommend sand as the best substrate for dwarf cichlids, sand is often not the best medium for growing plant roots.

Most plant roots will easily penetrate sand and will grow healthy root systems when the substrate is deep enough. Unfortunately, thick sand layers allow very little water movement through the substrate and are prone to developing anaerobic areas. Consequently, it’s usually best for a layer of sand to be less than an inch. When I want to use rooted plants in tanks with very little substrate I will plant them in some sort of pot or container that I put into the aquarium. I fill these with regular aquarium gravel and the plants do well in these containers. Using containers makes it easier to remove plants from a thickly planted tank.

Nutrients and Fertilization

This is a place where many people will disagree with my methods but… I’m a lazy aquarist and I do frequent and large water changes by siphoning out water and replacing it by running my RO outlet directly into the tank. It runs slow enough that there is no temperature problem and I don’t add any buffers or other additives. Many, probably most, hobbyists would say that plants (and fish!) can’t thrive in pure RO water. However, that’s what I do. My plants thrive so I know they are happy. It’s likely that there are plant species that would grow better for me if I added fertilizers or micro-nutrients. However, I’m fine with where I’m at in my plant-keeping.

That said, there are times when I do add fertilizers. Whenever I’m setting up a new planting of a deeply rooted plant like a sword plant, I usually bury a couple of fertilizing tablets to help stimulate root growth. Also, if I need rapid growth for some reason I’ll dose with fertilizer to get things going. For example, if I have a serious algae problem and want to quickly develop a thick layer of floating water sprite to block the light from reaching the algae. I’ll put in a number of young plants and dose them with fertilizer. Usually, this will benefit the water sprite and not the algae. Water sprite handled this way will quickly grow to a very thick layer as plant leaves grow on top of each other.

Planted Tank Problems


Many aquarists have problems with algae control and sometimes adding live plants seems to make the problem worse but live plants can help with algae control. If the tank is planted heavily enough, the plants can remove the nutrients that fuel algae growth. Unfortunately, it takes a lot of plants to significantly reduce algal growth this way. Algae can be reduced by using plants to limit the amount of light in the tank. A thick layer of floating plants will dramatically shade a tank and you may be able to control your algae problem by reducing light exposure.

Light intensity, spectrum, and duration all impact algae growth. Generally speaking, when you have algae problems the first step is to reduce the light. Often reducing the number of hours the tank is lit will make a big difference. Avoid direct sunlight as nothing will spur algae growth faster than sunlight through a window. Mechanical removal (scraping the glass) is often required and it’s pretty much impossible to avoid all algae.

Algae-eating fish, shrimp, and snails can all be helpful in controlling algae. A number of small plecostosmus-type catfish make good algae eaters. However, be careful because some of these can grow rather large. Also, be aware that these fish cannot survive on algae alone so you must have a plan for feeding them. Shrimp can be helpful but they can also easily become food for your fish. While many consider shails to be pests, I welcome them in my tanks.


Planted tanks are often associated with concerns about snail infestations. In my experience, this is rarely a problem because of my soft acidic water. In these conditions, snails can’t extract enough calcium and minerals from the water to build strong shells. While they will survive, they are usually fragile and rarely reproduce. I actually try to encourage the presence of snails in my tanks. They generally don’t bother the fish or eggs and are very helpful for algae control and tank cleanup.

Since snails gradually die out from my tanks, I usually maintain a tank or two with substrates that increase the mineral content of the water. Snails thrive in these tanks and they supply me with snails to distribute to my other tanks. I especially try to have snails in with any very young fry as they will help to clean up any uneaten food.

Pruning and Tank Maintenance

While it might be hard to believe when you plant your first few plants, once you find plants that work for you they will grow to a point where you need to thin them. While this is often a sign that you need to add another aquarium, usually that isn’t practical. I think the best thing to do with plant trimmings is to donate them to another hobbyist. It’s always fun to pass on your extra plants to someone who will enjoy them.

You may find that a local pet store will take your extra plants. However, don’t expect much compensation. Your best bet will be to offer a trade. I often gift the plants to the store. I believe this gets me much more in goodwill than the couple of dollars I might get.

However you dispose of your extras, pruning a tank is often a difficult task, especially if you have plants rooted in the substrate. I’ve often ended up nearly completely resetting a tank just by intending to do some pruning. When this happens, I usually try to leave the tank sparse as I know these species have thrived and will quickly recover. You can use tools to help trim and remove plants or you can reach in using your hands. If you are reaching into a tank for any reason make sure to unplug any heaters or other devices before you reach in.

Recommended Plants for Dwarf Cichlid Aquariums

Water Sprite – Ceratopteris thalictroides

If  I could only have one plant for my tanks it would probably be water sprite. It’s an amazingly versatile plant that can be grown as a floating or rooted plant.  It has a delightful light green color and thrives in soft acidic water.  It does well in varying light conditions. In low light, it generally does quite well but growth can slow.  Under bright lighting, water sprite can grow very rapidly.  Water sprite reproduces by budding smaller plants from their leaf margins.  These tiny plants will continue to grow until the mature leaf begins to die and disintegrate. A single plant can produce hundreds of smaller plants and it’s possible to cultivate a lot of water sprite in a short time. However, as with many fast-growing plants, the tender water sprite leaves are short-lived.

A male A. cacatuoides peers out from a tangle of Water Sprite leaves. This type of habitat is easily achieved when several plants are anchored or rooted close to each other.

I use water sprite as both a floating and a rooted plant. Since it grows quickly I use it a lot to create dense plantings in newly set-up tanks.  Typically every tank in my fish room will have a covering layer of floating water sprite. In some tanks, the plants will be lightly distributed while in others the layers of floating plant leaves can be nearly an inch thick.  Floating water sprite develops an extensive root system that hangs below and greatly benefits the tank and its inhabitants.  Individual water sprite plants can grow very large.  I’ve often had single floating plants with leaves touching each end of a 4ft tank.  Given ideal conditions, I have no idea how large they could get but in my tanks, they are always growing and each new leaf is larger and stronger than the previous.

Floating water sprite with large flowing roots are perfect for anchoring to the bottom of the tank.  You can plant them directly in the substrate but if you do so, be very careful not to bury the crown of the roots.  They will do best if they have at least an inch of their roots exposed.  Water sprite roots do not do very well buried in the substrate and often they will very slowly rot away.  However, often a few roots will continue to hold the plant in place.  I think it is better to anchor the plants down with rocks placed on their roots.  I take the plant and wrap the roots around a small rock and carefully place it on the tank bottom.  The plants thrive this way and by leaving the roots exposed I gain all of the benefits they provide.  It is easy to move these types of anchored plants and they will work great in a bare-bottom tank or one with a sparse substrate.

Java Moss – Vesicularia dubyana

Java Moss is a very valuable plant in my aquariums. It’s a moss, not a true plant so it has no roots or leaves. Rather, it grows as stringy strands of finely leaved stems that grow together into a mass of vegetation. This is a wonderful plant to have in every tank as it provides great browsing surfaces for fry and small fish as well as providing additional complexity and filtration. Java moss grows in most water conditions and once established will need regular trimming to insure that it does not get too thick. From a dense thicket to strands like tinsel on a Christmas tree, Java moss is great in many situations.

Java Moss is found throughout Southeast Asia where there are more than 125 species in the genus but only a couple are fully aquatic. Java Moss reproduces easily as any small piece will gradually begin to grow. It can be torn apart or trimmed with scissors. I use this in every tank in some fashion. It is great to use to reinforce line-of-sight barriers in the tank. It’s easy to reproduce as a single strand can be enough and a small portion provides a great start. I rarely see Java Moss offered for sale in shops but it is easily available on the Web.

Java Fern – Microsorium pteropus

Java Fern is another great plant for dwarf cichlid tanks. It is incredibly hardy and will do well in any water that is wet. They are slow-growing tough plants that require very little light. They don’t need to be planted and I don’t know of any fish that will eat them. This is a true fern that grows from a rhizome that creeps along the bottom as new leaves grow from its end. Individual leaves can get quite large measuring up to 15 inches or more in length. However, leaves of this size are generally found only on old plants that have been undisturbed for some time.

Java Fern is very easy to reproduce. Older leaves will spontaneously generate adventitious plantlets from the ends of the leaves. These tiny plants will slowly grow to be recognizable small plants and can be removed and attached elsewhere to grow into full-sized plants. Another method of reproduction is to divide the rhizome into segments and each segment will grow new leaves.

Cryptocoryne species

Cryptocoryne pontederiifolia growing tall and dense in a home aquarium
Cryptocoryne pontederiifolia is one of a number of “Crypts” that are great for dwarf cichlid aquariums.

Many of the different species of Cryptocoryne make great additions to a dwarf cichlid tank. I have a couple of different species that thrive for me. Over the years these particular forms seem to do well in my conditions and I have tanks that are choked with them. Crypts have extensive root systems and need a decent substrate to root in. I have kept them in some marginal conditions over the years, including in bare-bottom tanks, and they have always survived but they will certainly do best if provided a decent substrate.

I grow my Crypts in two ways; planted directly in the substrate and planted in containers. When I plant them in the substrate I generally like to have at least an inch and a half of substrate and preferably more. As I only keep a few tanks with that much gravel I mostly plant in containers. I use all kinds of different containers for them. Regular clay flower pots work great and the plants love them. My problem is that putting them in a pot of that shape raises them up 4 -6 inches and most of my tanks are shallow making this impractical. Instead, I use shallow containers that will hold about 2 inches of gravel. My best source for these containers is the bakery section of the grocery store where there is a myriad of different products offered in clear plastic containers.

Cryptocoryne species reproduce by sending out shoots from their roots. these shoots are quite aggressive and I’ve often had them grow out of the hole in the bottom of a clay pot. Normally they will form a mass of intertwined roots and shoots in the container. The plants do great in these conditions but when you finally try to separate them it can be very hard. A couple of general “rules” about Crypts are that they don’t do well with a lot of disturbance. I believe this is true but not absolute. A second “rule” is that at some point you will experience situations where all of their leaves will just seem to “melt” away. I have had this happen but it is very rare for me. However, the literature is full of warnings about this.

Pygmy Chain Sword – Echinodorus tenellus

Pygmy Chain Sword Echinodorus tenellus

I usually have this plant growing in a number of tanks that are set up for long-term use. It takes a bit to get going but once it starts sending out runners the entire bottom of the tank can quickly be covered by a mat of swords. This makes an almost impossible labyrinth from which to net an elusive Apisto so you want to avoid this plant in a setup where you will need to frequently remove fish.

Care is pretty easy, just plant the roots into any decent substrate and give them enough light. They do best with a little more light than some of the plants above but aren’t high-light demanding plants. Rather, they prefer moderate light and will survive but not thrive if in low light situations. As mentioned, they reproduce by sending out runners. Once a plant has a couple of sets of leaves it can be separated from the runner.

Other Plant Suggestions

These are plants that thrive for me but there are other great plants you can use in your dwarf cichlid aquarium. I’ve had good experiences with several of the different Anubias species as well as with Wisteria, Riccia, and several varieties of sword plants. Generally speaking, I have poor success with most bunch plants (Anacharis, Hornwort, Cabomba, etc.)

Of course, duckweed is an option if you don’t have anything else. It will quickly cover the top of the tank providing shade and water filtration. Unfortunately, it’s almost impossible to get rid of once it’s established so be sure you want it before you get it. Be careful if you shop in a store that has it floating in their tanks as it can easily come home with a fish purchase.     

Where to Buy Aquarium Plants

It’s never been as easy to purchase high-quality live plants as it is today. Aquascaping has become an important part of the aquarium hobby and many pet stores stock live plants and accessories. If you have a local store that stocks plants you should be in good shape. If you have the chance, shop for plants soon after they arrive for the best selections.

It’s also easy to purchase a wide variety of healthy plants online. In the paragraphs above I’ve linked to a few sites for some of the plants. but, a quick search will turn up lots of vendors selling many varieties of plants. Also, some of the businesses we list in our guide to Where to Buy Dwarf Cichlids offer plants as well as fish.

Shipping plants is a lot easier than shipping fish. They can ship in all but the worst weather conditions and the cost of shipping is often quite low. This makes it affordable to purchase the plants you want to try online.

Give Plants A Try

If you don’t have live plants in your aquarium I encourage you to give them a try. Start with a plant or two and see if they grow for you. If so, they will begin to expand and should produce additional plants. With a lot of time and patience you can develop a thickly planted tank this way. You can also develop a thickly planted tank by purchasing lots of plants. This will quickly provide you with a lushly planted environment. However, you may find that some of the plants you choose won’t grow in your unique water and lighting conditions. No matter what you do, give plants a try.