No fertilizers? No fancy lights? No problem.

Posted by Augusta Hosmer on

Read Time: 5 mins

“Can I have a planted tank without special lights, fertilizers, or a CO2 system?” This is a question everyone in the freshwater aquarium hobby has asked at some point, and we have good news: the answer is a resounding yes. If you want beautiful aquatic plants without feeling like you have to sell a kidney to afford tech to keep them alive, we've got you.


This is the first of a two part series on which aquarium plants are right for you based on how much maintenance they need. In this post, we'll list out some of the best low-light, hard-to-kill plants for folks who just want some green without all the extras.

Come back next week for part two, where we'll talk about species for those of you who have taken the plunge and want to try something more advanced with ferts, brighter lights, etc. Until then, onto the easy plants!

Banana Plants - Nymphoides aquatica


A group of banana plants
A group of banana plants - seriously, how cool are they? 


This plant is a living win-win scenario. It's unique-looking, it's a conversation starter (“Are those bananas in your fish tank?” Yes. Yes they are), and it's a super easy aquarium plant to care for. Why does it have "bananas?" They're actually a modified root system used for nutrient storage. Banana plants are a species of water lily native to the southeastern United States, so they like the warmer tanks a lot of popular freshwater fish species need. That said, they can survive colder environments too, so if you have something like an axolotl that requires colder water, you can still have some of these guys (it just may not thrive as much as it would in tropical tanks).


These plants are adaptable, do well in low-light tank environments, and are great as a floater plant. They're also surprisingly easy to propagate if you fall in love with them and want to go...bananas. This would make a great addition to any tank, especially a kid's aquarium.

Java Ferns - Microsorum pteropus (AKA Leptochilus pteropus)

Regular and Trident Java Ferns


I'm convinced those post-apocalyptic movies with barren wastelands are unrealistic now if there isn't a java fern chilling in the background somewhere - because if there was ever a plant to survive planetary destruction, it's this one. This is an incredibly hardy aquarium plant from India, Malaysia, and Thailand that can handle a lot of different water parameters, low light, no extra fertilizer, and beginner mistakes.


I once moved several states away with these in a tank and thought they died after a mover got careless. The tank sat dry for two weeks and this plant still came back after I got it going again. It's tough enough it can actually make a good plant for cichlid tanks, too. If that's not an endorsement for how hard it is to kill, we don't know what is.


There are several java fern varieties– different looks, but all the same toughness. The most common are regular java fern and narrow-leaf java fern. Another variety is the trident java fern that can be harder to find but is worth the wait. It's well-named with leaves that branch in groups of three and make you feel like Poseidon's given your tank his stamp of approval. There's also a super cool Windelov java fern cultivar with leaves that remind me of veins or tree branches.


Windelov Java Fern
Windelov Java Fern - check out those leaves.

 As strong as this plant is, it has an Achilles heel: you can't plant it in your substrate because it has a rhizome that will rot if it's buried. You can tie or glue it to your tank décor, stick it between some rocks, or put it in crevices on driftwood, though.

Lots of mythology references, there. What can we say? Java ferns are epic.

AnubiasAnubias nana, Anubias barteri, Anubias coffefolia, Anubias lancelota, Anubias congensis...the list goes on!

Anubias is a genus from Africa with a ton of diverse species, all of which can look amazing in a low-maintenance fish tank. Like Java ferns, it’s also one of the few plants tough enough to try with cichlids or goldfish. If the chaos-incarnate cichlids can’t destroy it, you probably won’t either. These do great in low light; have thick, dark green leaves; and make for a fantastic choice for all spaces in the aquarium if you’re getting into aquascaping. 


Anubias nana is a bestseller for a reason. It’s one of the hardiest midground aquarium plants alive and is low-effort, high-reward. As a bonus, there’s also a sub-variety called Anubias nana petite that’s a fun, mini version of the original. 


Six different anubias aquatic plant species

Anubias barteri also has a few subtypes that do well in a beginner tank. One is the aptly named Broadleaf with enormous leaves that grow more quickly in better light but still look great in lower-light setups. There’s also the goldencoin variety with smaller, rounder leaves that look like…coins. Botanists are real creative with names in these here parts. For the background, there are Anubias congensis and Anubias lancelota - taller and no less tough. 


Like the java fern, Anubias has a rhizome that shouldn’t be buried unless you want to murder the otherwise un-murderable.

Moneywort/Yellow Flame – Bacopa monnieri, Bacopa caroliniana

If you're looking for low-light aquatic plants, allow us to introduce you to your new best friend, Bacopa. Moneywort (monnieri) could probably grow in a closet. Yellow Flame, as the name suggests, is monnieri's more colorful cousin. If you want a tough plant that also gives you some contrast, this is your ticket.These species are also great for their flexibility because they can be planted in your substrate or floated.

A bunch of Moneywort (Bacopa)A few stems of Yellow Flame Bacopa, a colorful aquarium plant
Moneywort and Yellow Flame Bacopa
Last, but certainly not least, are the floating aquarium plants. A lot of beginners don't realize you don't have to plant everything - some species you can just drop in and enjoy. Floating plants are an awesome way to add another layer to your tank, help with excess algae, etc. They're also very easy in a tank without high-tech aquarium lights because they're closer to the surface and get light more easily. Additionally, they usually don't need CO2 systems because they get free access to it already. They can grow at lightspeed in your tank (pun intended). For an easy flash of color, red root floater (Phyllanthus fluitans) is a fantastic beginner red plant. Hornwort (AKA coontail, Ceratophyllum) is a flowy species with fine leaves that make it look like a bottle brush, and fish fry love it. It also grows incredibly fast.
A bunch of red root floater aquarium plants on the surface of a fish tank
Red root floater
And finally, there's the famous duckweed. Duckweed is one of those plants you turn your back on for two seconds and turn back to find it everywhere. It propagates insanely quickly and can provide some shade to tank inhabitants that need it. It's also a great snack for goldfish. Double check your agriculture laws before you buy certain types of duckweed, though, because it's invasive and illegal to own in several states. 
Duckweed, a floating aquarium plant, on the surface of a planted tank 
A bunch of duckweed, a gorgeous floating plant that's super easy to grow
If you’re someone who reads this and says, “This is great and all, but I am to plants what meteors were to the dinosaurs,” it’s all good. Dustin’s Fishtanks carries a “Can’t Kill It” plant combo that includes four mistake-friendly species that’ll give you (and your poor, defenseless planted tank) a fighting chance. 
Overall, we can't guarantee you won't find a way to kill these plants, but you'll have to work pretty hard to do it with most of them.

Check back in next week for plants that pose a little more of a challenge (don’t worry; we’ll give lots of tips and tricks). You know the routine by now: let us know what other posts you want to see next, and tank on!

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