10 Easy Plants for African Cichlid Aquariums
The stereotypical aquarium for African Cichlids is usually characterized by a barren appearance with sand, rockwork and possibly 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. Therefore, we have spent years experimenting with and searching for the most “cichlid-proof” plants. 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. They are also known for their ability to absorb large amounts of nitrates and phosphate, which helps 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 is a floating plant that we’ve had great success growing with our mbunas, the most notorious African cichlids. They look fluffy but their pine needle-like leaves are very tough and slightly serrated. Although some African cichlids might try to eat them or tear off a piece, the damage is not noticeable because hornwort grows so quickly. 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. See our complete care guide for more information on Hornwort.
Cabomba (Cabomba spp.) This stem plant can also be grown by floating the plant 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. It can grow quickly if it is exposed to high levels of light. 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.
Plants that are epiphyte
An epiphyte plant is another type that doesn’t require a substrate. They are often attached to rock, driftwood or other decorations to stop them being knocked around. 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. 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 popular for their ease of use, low light requirements, and wide range of 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 look similar to anubias due to their ease of care, low light requirements and long-lasting leaves. There are three main types: regular java, windelov (or laces) java, and narrow-leaf java. You can either split the rhizome in two or cut off a leaf to make little plantlets.
Bolbitis (Bolbitis heudelotii) is a gorgeous epiphyte with textured, vivid green leaves that can grow very large and serve as a background plant. The African water fern is also known. It can thrive in waters with high pH levels and high GH, which are what African cichlids love. While epiphyte plants tend to be slower than floating plants in terms of growth, bolbitis can grow into an impressive bush that could dominate even a medium-sized aquarium.
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 for vallisneria
Vallisneria is one of the few plants found growing in the wild in Lake Tanganyika and does well with higher pH and GH. Many varieties are available for sale in the hobby, including Vallisneria spiralis and its bigger 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. For extra protection, we like to leave the vallisneria inside their original plastic pots with a few root tabs. Easy Green all-in one fertilizer can be added to the water. Once the plant starts producing runners, it will spread out across the substrate like 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 calomistratum also known as African onion plant is a slow-growing bulb plants that prefers 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. If you keep the bulb in low to moderate light and don’t move it, it will begin to make long, ruffled tendrils reaching all the way to your water surface.
Amazon sword surrounded by rocks to prevent goldfish from uprooting it
Sword plants – like the Amazon sword, red flame sword, and red melon 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. They can be easily rooted if they have established roots before adding African cichlids. While melting might occur at first when the plant is introduced to an aquarium’s water, this will quickly disappear if you give it lots of root tabs or nutrients. 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 seem determined to eat all the vegetation available, your best option is to create emersed plants in your tank.
are all plants that we have grown with their leaves above the water and their roots in the 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.