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Wait, That's Not a Fish: Planted Tanks for Non-fish Species

Posted by Augusta Hosmer on

Usually, thinking of planted tanks conjures up images of fish, or maybe of aquascaped tanks with no animals at all. But there’s a whole other side to the aquarium hobby that might hook you the way it’s hooked me: amphibians and invertebrates. If you’re looking for a unique planted tank idea and/or want to know which plants to put with your non-fish companions, then look no further. Here, we’ll match tried-and-true aquarium plant species with tank inhabitants you might have overlooked.

A leucistic Axolotl in a planted tank
A leucistic axolotl in a planted tank

Aquarium Plants for Axolotls

I’ve seen several posts from people who believe axolotls (Ambystoma mexicanum) are fictional creatures. Knowing axolotls, I can see how they’d come to that conclusion – these guys are basically Pokemon. But nope, the always-smiling, fully aquatic salamanders are real; and so are their chances in planted aquariums…with a few caveats. Axolotls prefer colder water (60’s to low 70’s Fahrenheit), which immediately eliminates many popular aquarium plant species that require warmer temps. They also are sensitive to bright light because they don’t have eyelids, which narrows down the potential plant field even further because, shockingly enough, plants need light to survive and grow more easily with more light.

An additional strike against keeping axolotls in planted tanks is the fact that many popular aquarium plant substrates can lead to impaction. Essentially, if an axolotl accidentally swallows pieces of the substrate, those pieces can cause potentially fatal digestive problems and intestinal blockage if they aren’t fine enough to pass through the digestive system unhindered. The last thing you want is a tank full of gorgeous plants that kill their roommate. And to really drive the point home, axolotls often uproot plants because they enjoy digging in the substrate and are cute enough to get away with unhinged destruction.

Fortunately, there are still several viable plant options for axolotl tanks in spite of the factors working against them. The first two are java ferns (Microsorum pteropus) and Anubias. At this point, I just need to get a sign I can hold up if someone wants an aquarium plant but isn’t sure if it’ll make it. It needs cold water? Java fern or Anubias. Low light? Java fern or Anubias. Don’t want a substrate? Java fern or Anubias. Oh, it’s basically going to be a photosynthesizing chew toy? Don’t make me tap the sign.

Anubias nana, a hardy aquarium plant
Anubias nana, an easy aquarium plant that does great with axolotls

These are hardy plants with a few different subtypes, and they make a great addition to any tank, especially an axolotl’s.  They have thick, tough leaves; can thrive in an amazingly wide range of temperatures and lighting setups; and they have the added bonus of a rhizome (a modified stem system), which means they shouldn’t be planted in substrate. You can tie or glue these plant species onto rocks, driftwood, and other décor and have some green in your tank without increasing the risk of impaction.

Another, more unique-looking option is the banana plant (Nymphoides aquatica), which thrives in warmer water but can grow to tolerate colder temps, as well. This species is tough and awesome as a low-light floating plant, which works well with axolotls – can’t uproot it if it was never planted to begin with.

This segues into a great overall plant category for axolotls: floaters. For starters, floating aquatic plants can survive in a setup without super bright lights because they’re so much closer to the light source. They also can act as shade for the light-sensitive axolotl. Cold-tolerant species like water hyacinth, java moss, and hornwort make for great choices and are dead easy.

A group of water hyacinths, green aquatic plants, floating on the surface of the water
Water hyacinths

Aquarium Plants for Aquatic Frogs

I could be biased since they’re what got me into the aquarium hobby, but frogs make some of the best non-fish additions to planted tanks (the cover photo is actually my first African Dwarf Frog, Smaug, in my first ever tank). They eat mostly invertebrates so they’re not interested in your plants, they can usually cohabitate peacefully in community tanks, and they’re an absolute blast to watch. Typically, fully aquatic frog species like African Dwarf Frogs (Hymenochirus) and Clawed Frogs (Xenopus laevis) come from warmer environments as well, so they can live with just about any tropical, freshwater aquarium plant out there.

They also aren’t overly sensitive to light like axolotls, so you can try more advanced or intermediate plant species that require more care. If you want to make your life easy, though, you can have a planted frog tank full of beginner species for low-maintenance, high reward. They do very well with a dirt substrate, too, so if you're looking to start a dirted, planted tank (if you aren't now, give it time) these guys could be your ticket. Basically, with these frogs, pick a plant on this site and give it a shot, or try a combo

One thing to keep in mind with them, though: African Dwarf and Clawed Frogs aren’t very strong swimmers, so you’ll need to look at plants for setups that aren’t too deep. Check out foreground and midground aquarium plants unless you're ok with trimming. Other than that, sky’s the limit.

A group of red and green aquarium plants, part of the "beautiful plants" combo

Aquarium Plants for Invertebrates

No conversation about non-fish planted tank inhabitants would be complete without freshwater snails and shrimp. These may not initially seem as exciting as some of the other animals on this list, but if you’ve ever kept them, you know what they lack in spine they make up for in personality and entertainment value. Depending on the shrimp/snail species you get, you have a lot of flexibility on plant species as well.

Some smaller shrimp are more sensitive to their tank environment and may not do well with planted tanks, but there are many types you can keep successfully. One of the best in a planted tank is the Amano (Caridina multidentata), but you can also try the very colorful Neocaridinia davidiI. When it comes to shrimp, you want moss, they want moss, everybody wants moss. Java moss or Flame moss (Taxiphyllum "Flame")  are fantastic choices and give your shrimp a natural hiding place. 

Flame Moss
Flame Moss

For the snails, you also have a lot of plant options. "Won't the snails eat my plants?" Depends on the species. Nerite snails, Assassin Snails, and Bladder Snails are all amazing in planted tanks - they just like your plants for any algae that happens to grow on or around them. 

Hornwort and Anacharis are both great choices for invertebrates (just double check that Anacharis is legal in your area). 

Aquarium Plants for Newts

Once incredibly common, newts now are often overlooked in conversations about non-fish aquarium species, and they’re harder to find in pet stores. Even so, several types of newts would be fantastic in a planted tank. The eastern newt (Notophthalmus viridescens), native to eastern North America, is an excellent choice. Another variety is the fire-bellied newt (Cynops), banned in the states in 2016 due to a deadly fungus but slowly making a comeback now that captive-bred animals are allowed again. Fire-bellied newts are aptly named; and their vivid, red and orange stomachs pop against the green backdrop of a planted aquarium.

Newts are technically semi-aquatic, which means they require an area in their enclosure where they can escape the water. However, in my experience, the newt council has elected to ignore those weird, non-newt scientists’ classification and they spend 99% of their time in the water in a proper setup. So their tanks can still benefit a lot from live aquarium plants. Fortunately, these guys are completely carnivorous, which means they aren’t going to eat those plants and leave you with a mess.

A banana plant (Nymphoides aquatica)
Banana plant

Much like the axolotl, newts typically like cooler temperatures (<73°F) and can become impacted with gravel, so you should choose plant species and substrate accordingly. Therefore, the same plants that would work for an axolotl (java ferns, banana plants, java moss, Anacharis, Anubias, hornwort, etc.) would do very well in a newt tank. As a bonus, the newts sometimes like to use floating plants like pool floaties or underwater hammocks. Who can resist that?

This may be Dustin’s Fishtanks, but we’ve got plenty of love for non-fish species in planted tanks, too. Dustin’s Mostlyfishtanks just doesn’t roll off the tongue as well, for some weird reason.

Do your aquatic plants have some even stranger, non-fish animal neighbors? Got an idea for another post? Tell us about it, and tank on!


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