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Seeing Red from Not Seeing Red: Quick Guide to Red Aquarium Plants

Posted by Augusta Hosmer on

It's the most frustrating thing ever: you get these rich, deep red and purple plants, all is right with the world, and then one day you look at your tank and they're barely pink, if not completely green. Want to turn your green plants red again? Here's how to keep your red aquarium plants from fading and a guide on which red plants are right for you and your tank.

Why Are Some Plants Red? 

Before you can fix the problem, you have to understand why red plants are even a thing to begin with. The easiest way to think of most red species is plants with a tan. People who are exposed to higher levels of sunlight have darker skin. Why? Because the body produces a darker skin pigment called melanin that acts as built in protection for ultraviolet (UV) light. When light hits the darker surface, it gets redistributed and absorbed without damaging the cells protected by the melanin. It's why people who are naturally paler come off summer vacations looking like a tomato. 

Red plants are basically the tan people laughing at their sunburned green "pale" friends at the beach. They use a pigment called anthocyanin that functions similarly to melanin and gives plants that red color you're going for. Anthocyanin protects the plant from UV damage, and it also might help deter predators because substances produced alongside it apparently taste awful (don't ask me; I haven't chewed on any red plants recently). The plants are still able to photosynthesize (produce energy from light); they just do it slightly less efficiently than their green counterparts in lower light. 

So knowing all that, here's the biggest tip we can give you with red aquarium plants: use nature to your advantage. 

A group of ten red aquarium plant species arranged in a circle

Okay, Great, How Do I Use Biology to My Advantage? 

There are two main areas to look at for boosting reds: light and nutrients. You know why plants turn red, now: it's a pigment to protect against high light levels. So, in a lot of situations, an easy fix for fading red plants is bumping up your lights to make them produce more pigment. Just keep in mind if you blast the lights too much without keeping the rest of the aquarium in balance, you're asking for an algae outbreak.  

You also need to make sure you're keeping your plants' nutrients where they need to be. More light is great, but if your plant doesn't have enough resources to produce the pigments it needs or to grow, you're sunk. Make sure your plant is getting enough primary nutrients, micronutrients, and CO2. There's also some debate over whether dosing with iron helps with getting redder plants but personally, I've had better luck with them when fertilizing with iron than not. Up to you; you may have to experiment and see what works for your individual setup. Just a caveat: iron is considered a micronutrient, so you don't need a lot of it. Don't overdose with it or you're asking for a world of trouble. 

Also, keep in mind, plants tend to change slowly. Changing your lights/ferts may not give you red plants immediately, but be patient. Chances are, you'll start seeing the changes you want soon enough. 

The Best Red Aquarium Plants

Here are some of our favorite red plants, ranked roughly by difficulty (Don't worry: most of these are pretty easy to keep alive; you just might have to work on lights/ferts to boost their red colors). 

Red Root Floater (Phyllanthus fluitans)
Difficulty: Easy

This is one of the easiest plants on the list because it's a floater - it's closer to the light that boosts reds. It has thick, dark red root systems and is insanely easy to grow and propagate. 

A bunch of red root floater, a red aquarium plant, floating on the water's surface
Red Root Floater

Ludwigia repens
Difficulty: Easy

Repens is one of the easier Ludwigia species, and it's fantastic for bringing some contrast to a tank without too much extra work. This plant is valuable for how flexible it is: it thrives in a lot of different tank conditions, and is definitely worth a try in yours! It's a tall/skinny plant, so it's great in the background or to break up a shorter scape. 

A few stems of Ludwigia repens, a red aquarium plant
Ludwigia repens

Easier Rotala species - rotundifolia, macranda (small leaf or yellow), nanjenshan
Difficulty: Easy

Rotala's are a fantastic genus of aquarium plant because they're so varied (there are two more species towards the end of this list). We like rotundifolia, macranda (two varieties!) and nanjenshan on the easier end of the scale. 

For a hardy, pink/red plant, Rotala rotundifolia is low work, high reward. It is a crazy hardy plant, grows moderately quickly, and it does really well in the background.  You can also get it in green if you like the look of it!

A few stems of Rotala Rotundifolia "red," a red aquarium plant
Rotala rotundifolia "Red"

Another easy Rotala species is macranda, and there are two types we love. The first is macranda "yellow," which is exactly what it sounds like: it's a cool plant with a mix of pink and yellowish leaves for yet another splash of color against your other green plants. You can also get it in a small leaf variety, which is a little easier to keep and looks great in the midground of your tank. 

Rotala macranda yellow, a pink and yellow aquarium plant
Rotala macranda "yellow"

Alternanthera reineckii - Regular and Variegated
Difficulty: Easy

Reineckii is slightly more difficult than Rotala, but not by much - Alternanthera just has thinner leaves that drop more easily. And, like macranda, it also has two amazing varieties. The first is the regular, which has solid red leaves. The second is one of the most popular plants on the site, the variegated version. The leaves have more contrast than the regular and look amazing no matter what kind of setup you've got going. 

Leaves of Alternanthera reineckii "Variegated," a red aquarium plant
Alternahtera reineckii "Variegated"

Myriophyllum matogrossense
Difficulty: Easy

If you like fluffy plants (I mean, come on, who doesn't?), these are the easiest red fluffy plants on here! If you want a splash of red and a new texture for your tank, give these a shot. Just keep in mind fluffy plants look that way because their leaves are so much smaller than their broadleaf counterparts, so it's easier for them to get damaged/drop leaves. Definitely don't try to keep Myriophyllum with cichlids. 

A few stems of Myriophyllum matogrossense, a fluffy, red aquarium plant
Myriophyllum matogrossense

Red Tiger Lotus (Nymphaea zenkeri)
Difficulty: Easy

These plants have a different leaf shape than most of the species on this list, and that combined with the way they grow, how easy they are, and how they hold onto color makes it a personal favorite. They can grow in the background, or the foreground if you keep them trimmed. It thrives in a better substrate, but beyond that, it's not a super difficult plant to keep. 

Several Red Tiger Lotuses, red/brown/yellow aquarium plants, growing together
Red Tiger Lotus

Hygrophila corymbosa 'compacta' 
Difficulty: Easy

In terms of keeping, these guys should be higher up on the list because they're SO easy. But we have them ranked here because they like to melt back when you first add them. They come back very well, though! They thrive in low light, and are also great for some color in the foreground of your tank because they typically stay so short (hence the "compacta" part of the name). 

Hygrophila Corymbosa "Compacta" Aquarium Plants bunched together in a tub
A bunch of Hygrophila corymbosa "compacta"

Ammania gracilis
Difficulty: Easy to Intermediate (Advanced Beginner)

Getting into the plants that need a little more know how/better equipment to keep, we have Ammania gracilis. This plant has thick, reddish, wavy leaves. Because they grow out so thickly, it's a good idea to spread them out if you're planting multiple. Though all the red plants on this list need more light to keep that color, this one likes to melt if it doesn't have the light it needs. 

Several Ammania gracilis plants, red aquarium plants growing in a water basin
Ammania gracilis

Myriophyllum tuberculatum
Difficulty: Easy to Intermediate (Advanced Beginner)

This is the more challenging cousin to the fluffy matogrossense we talked about above. Though it takes a bit more work, just LOOK at how red it can grow. Get this thing going right, and you've got some fluffy fire for a background plant. 

A few stems of Myriophyllum tuberculatum, a fluffy, deep red aquarium plant

Ludwigia palustris "Triple Red"
Difficulty: Easy to Intermediate (Advanced Beginner)

Though Ludwigia is typically an intermediate group of plants, we have this one ranked here because it's specifically bred to hold onto that deep red you want more easily. It's simliar to repens, not that difficult to keep, and can really pop. Think the picture speaks for itself with how they earned that "Triple Red" name. 

A bunch of Ludwigia palustria "Triple Red," deep red aquarium plants, growing together in a basin
Look at how red these Ludwigia "Triple Red" are

Ludwigia brevipes
Difficulty: Intermediate

Brevipes is definitely more difficult to keep than Triple Red or repens, but it's not impossible and still makes for a great choice. It has pointed, narrow leaves, and is gorgeous once you get it going. I love the fade from the green, broader leaves to the narrower, redder ones. 

A few stems of Ludwigia brevipes, a green/red aquarium plant
Ludwigia brevipes

Ludwigia inclinata
Difficulty: Intermediate

If you want to grow Ludwigia inclinata, you've got to have more light like we talked about. They soak up light like nobody's business. They also are more demanding when it comes to nutrients, which is why it's ranked furhter down here in difficulty. But if you've kept other red plants successfully and want to up your aquascaping game, try inclinata out!

A bunch of Ludwigia inclinata growing together in a horizontal line, with green aquarium plants in the background
Look at all these inclinatas - you can see why we think they're worth the extra work

More challenging Rotala species - wallichii and vietnam
Difficulty: Intermediate

And finally, we have Rotala wallichii and Rotala vietnam. They're both very similar to each other: a fluffy, red Rotala species with yellow/red, needle-like leaves for a unique-looking addition to your tank. The vietnam variety has a darker red stem than the wallichii. They both require high-light, high-nutrient environments to thrive because of those thinner leaves. 

A few stems of Rotala vietnam, a fluffy, red/yellow aquarium plant with red stems
Rotala vietnam

The plants on this post are red-iculous and drop-red gorgeous, and we absolutely love them. Give them a shot in your tank - you won't be disappointed. You know the drill at this point: let us know if you have any questions or any other blog posts you wanna see, and tank on!


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