Introduction to an Easy, Ap-peel-ing Planted Tank Addition: Banana Plants

Posted by Augusta Hosmer on

8 Facts about the banana plant (Nymphoides aquatica), a fun and easy grower sure to be a conversation-starting newcomer in your planted fish tank. 

Read Time: 5 minutes

1. Funny enough, the 'bananas' really are food 

What are the bananas on Nymphoides aquatica? They're actually uniquely modified storage organs (tubers) designed to build up nutrients for later use. We eat bananas for food. So does Nymphoides, in a way. 

2. When we say they're easy to keep, they're easy in every way you can think of

Like most aquarium plants, they're great in high-light/high-nutrient conditions, but aquatic banana plants can survive (even thrive) as a low-light, low-tech aquarium plant, too. They aren't heavy feeders, and they don't need CO2 injection. Because they're so cool-looking and easy, these make for a great addition to a kids' fish tank or classroom aquarium!

An aquatic banana plant (Nymphoides aquatica), with dark green, banana-shaped tubers and three stems with reddish, heart-shaped leaves

3. They have a lot of cool names (and some of them don't even belong to them)

You'll see this called the "banana plant" or just Nymphoides in the hobby most often, but it's also called the banana lily and big floatingheart (Floatingheart from the fact water lily leaves are heart-shaped and...well....they float). Don't confuse it with the Musa plant genus, which grows actual bananas.

If you're looking for info on these guys, probably best to search for "banana plants aquarium." Take it from someone who wondered how people were growing bananas out of the tops of their tanks for a while before I realized what my fish tank friends were really talking about.

Also, don't confuse it with Nymphaea, which is a different aquatic plant genus. It shares a similar name because Nymphaea is the genus for water lilies and it closely resembles several water lily species. The nymph part of their name comes from the word describing the mythological nymphs of Greek mythology, nature spirits most often associated with water even though there were many subtypes.

Because of this genus confusion, some sellers will erroneously call them fairy lilies or other common names given to water lilies. Make sure you know what you're buying. 

4. They're in the same order as a lot of popular garden plants

An 'order' in biology is a rank of classification that's basically just a group of families related to each other. Banana plants belong to the Asterales order of plants. You might see "aster" and know where this is going. Asterales includes sunflowers, bellflowers, asters, several shrub families, and others. 

5. They can actually flower in your tank under the right conditions

A few banana lilies in the wild; with dark green, heart-shaped leaves floating on the water surface; and a white flower with a yellow center blooming from one of the stems

6. The leaves are usually multicolored - here's why

The tops of normal banana plant leaves typically vary between light green and yellow, with tinges of rust color on both the leaf and the tubers. However, with the right lighting, parts of the leaf will actually turn a reddish or purplish color. This is an adaptation for light absorption. Plants use pigments of varying colors to absorb light. In high-light environments, plants protect themselves with redder pigments to avoid getting scorched (functions kinda like melanin in humans).

However, they also sometimes use purple pigments on the undersides of their leaves to increase light absorption in lower-light environments. So if you see your banana lily turning colors, the color can't be wiped off (that's probably algae/cyanobacteria if it can be), and the plant is otherwise healthy, you have nothing to worry about. 

An Aquatic Banana Plant (Nymphoides aquatica) with three light green stems and three leaves that are light green on the top, and reddish-purple on the bottom

7. They're one of the easiest plants to propagate 

Want to get more plants from the one you've got? Here's the super complicated method to propagating aquarium banana plants. You may want to take notes: 

  1. Cut off a stem with a leaf on it
  2. Let it float around your tank and wait for it to grow into a whole new plant

You may have to rest for a while after such bone-breaking botany, but you'll soon have another banana plant as the fruits of your labor. 

A Nymphoides aquatica (banana lily) leaf with small, white roots growing out of the stem after 2 weeks of free floating; on a black background
Image is Creative Commons; photo by Joseph G. Bergstrom. This is a Nymphoides aquatica leaf that was cut from a parent plant and free floated for 2 weeks. Check out those little roots starting to form on the bottom of the stem! They really are that easy. 

8. They're native to the United States

Most aquarium plant species in the trade are tropical and native to places like Africa, South America, and Asia, but this is actually a North American species (great for you North American biotope tank folks). Its range includes Texas and the southeastern United States. It's also been found as far north as Maryland, though it's considered endangered, there. 

Banana Breakdown: Care Guide for Nymphoides aquatica

Lighting: loves moderate to high light, but can look good even in low lighting (just might grow more slowly)

Temperature: will survive in a wide temperature range - if you have a freshwater fish tank, I'd be shocked if this plant didn't adjust to whatever temp you're running. 

What animals you can keep with banana plants: Any tropical freshwater fish, amphibians, and invertebrates will do well with these guys (some people have even tried them with cichlids with success, but as anyone who keeps cichlids knows, plants can be 50/50). They're are also hardy enough to try in tanks with cold-water species. 

Substrate: can have with almost any substrate. This is one of those plants you can put in with plain ol' aquarium gravel and still have some green. 

How/Where to Plant: Typically used as a foreground plant since they don't grow to be very tall (around 6 inches/15cm). Could be used as a midground plant in shallow or nano tanks, though. As far as how to plant, the most common method is simply placing the plant on top of the substrate and letting its roots find their way in. You can anchor it or plant it just barely in the top of the substrate (1/4-1/2 inch) if it tries to float off. Just don't plant it too deeply, or you're asking for rot.

The lighter-colored roots will emerge from the bottom of the plant near the tubers, and as the plant grows, the stem with the leaf/lily pad will extend towards the surface of the water. 

Fertilizers/CO2: If you'd like to fertilize and provide extra CO2, your banana plants will grow more quickly, but they don't require a lot of supplementation to do well. 

Common Problems: It's undemanding, but when introduced to a new environment, the leaf/lily pad portion of the plant may melt (turn brown and transparent and just look generally pathetic). It'll come back from that, though; just give it some time to adjust. Another common issue is tuber rot and suffocation, which is generally caused by planting the bananas too deeply in the substrate.

One other issue (not really a disease or a problem since the plant is usually healthy, but many don't like it when it happens) is the 'bananas' sometimes go away. Why are your banana plant bananas disappearing? If it's not rot and the rest of the plant looks fine, the most common theory is it's getting everything it needs and doesn't need to carry around all that extra food anymore. I can't find any science to confirm or deny that, yet, but it's a reasonable guess.

If you'd like to keep the bananas, it may be worth keeping them in a low-tech/low-ferts tank or experimenting to figure out the nutrient balance needed to keep the plants happy without losing the cool tubers. 

Here's a video of some of the banana plants Dustin has in the greenhouse. 

We're sure you can understand the ap-peel, now. ;) Check out banana plants, give 'em a try in your live planted tank, and tank on! 

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