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Killer Plants for Killer Fish: How to Have a Planted Tank with Goldfish, Cichlids, Silver Dollar Fish, etc.
Some fish roll out of bed, look in the mirror, and say a daily affirmation: “Today, I will cause problems on purpose.”
I’d never had a love-hate relationship with a fish before until I watched my friend’s cichlid tank when she was out of town. Watching an aquarium for someone usually means taking care of things while the owner is away, but this felt more like getting free tickets to a demolition derby and being told two seconds in I had to make sure the cars didn’t get damaged. This was back when I’d just gotten into the hobby, so I had zero experience these fish.
I wake up, stroll leisurely over to the aquarium to start my day with something zen…and am met with scaled gremlins dragging a ragged, uprooted plant across the tank like it was a war trophy in a Greek epic. Most of the other plants were floating around like flotsam from a Kraken attack. It was hard to be angry at fish that looked like they were having such a great time. After my soul left my body at the thought of explaining to my friend I’d somehow let her tank be destroyed in less 24 hours, a panicked phone call later she tells me, laughing, “Oh, you poor sweet summer child. They’re cichlids.”
Simply put, there are some fish a lot of hobbyists think you can’t keep in a planted tank. Many types of cichlids (especially Oscars), goldfish, plecos, silver dollar fish, clown loaches, and several other popular species are infamous for destroying tanks. These fish have awesome looks and personalities, but terrible manners.
Why are they like this? Depends on the species. Some cichlids will eat plants, but even carnivorous species will uproot them by digging in the substrate. Digging is part of the cichlid’s mating behavior, and they also use it as a means to establish territory. There are actually some cichlids that will build what are called bowers, which are basically underwater sand castles meant to attract a mate. Silver dollar fish are technically omnivores but go after plants more than protein. Goldfish, meanwhile, will eat just about anything. You’d cause some destruction too if someone put you in a house decorated with your favorite pizza.
Dustin's Oscar, Django, giving us his best "I just nipped your fingers and you're still going to love me" look.
Oscars are just oscars. They suffer from a disorder called “You-didn’t-do-it-right-itis” which makes them redecorate their tanks whenever they feel like it, and they will move décor around if it’s not where they want it. They’re also big fish and can knock things around fairly easily, even if it’s accidental.
But don’t give up hope - we have several plant species you can try in your tank with minimized chances of total annihilation. Here are our top plant picks for the fish that make you say, “This is why we can’t have nice things.”
JAVA FERN – Microsorum pteropus
No list of fish-proof plants would be complete without the unshakeable java fern. They have rhizomes that are tough as nails and we’re convinced they could survive a nuclear war. Important note for this one: don’t plant it in the substrate.
Tie or glue it to a rock or some driftwood. (You'll probably want to tie it several times because destructive fish can and will break thread) It can tolerate a wide range of temperatures and water parameters and is one of the closest plants to being “unkillable” that you can find.
Like what you see? You can try out your own java fern by clicking HERE
ANUBIAS - various species
The cool thing with this plant is there are a lot of different types that are strong enough to handle these fish, so you can have some variety in your tank. There are a few different sizes you can experiment with. Anubias nana, the regular/midsized species, is an awesome choice for pretty much any tank out there, with thick, dark green leaves and its famous hardiness. You can also get it in the petite version, which is exactly what it sounds like: a smaller Anubias nana. On the larger end of the spectrum is the broadleaf variety of Anubias barteri. As the name suggests, the leaves can get massive.
This is another one you don’t want to plant in the substrate since it has a rhizome. Tying or gluing it to driftwood, rocks, or other sturdy décor is the way to go. (again – make sure it’s really secure) These can also grow in a bunch of different tank setups and parameters, but can be sensitive to temp changes. They make for great midground plants, and all of them are fairly rugged and easy to keep.
Looking for a tall plant that won’t get demolished? You’ve found it. It grows quickly and can thrive even with cheap lighting. They also get really big, so the leaves are stronger and can usually survive fish that want to take them out. Given how large it gets, you’ll most likely want to plant it in the background. This one can go in the substrate. You can get it as a plant or a bulb here!
CRINUM – two different species
These are easily some of the coolest-looking background plants out there. Crinum is an amazing plant with a wavy, ruffled appearance that's sure to turn heads - and they can get massive. It's good for something different in your tank, and it has leaves tough enough to handle plant eaters. They're also native to Africa, so it's like a piece of home for a cichlid tank. Hard to beat that combination.
Crinum calamistratum and Crinum natans are two awesome choices. They do require a little more specialized care than some of the other plants on the list though, so if you've never had aquarium plants before, maybe think about adding them later. They're not horrifically difficult to grow, but having some knowhow beforehand will help you out in the long run. Dustin's Fishtanks has carried both of them, and they look pretty epic: calamistratum and natans.
AFRICAN WATER FERN – Bolbitus heudelotii
This is another one that doesn't need to be planted in the substrate and likes to be tied securely to something (seeing a trend, here?) It's also another tough, adaptable African plant - perfect for some cichlids. They'll grow in a lot of different tank environments, are fairly forgiving, and have thick leaves that look like the edge on a steak knife.
As an aside on all of these species, it’s best to get them as well established as you can before introducing the potential plant killers. You can also design the tank with rocks or heavier décor around the plants so that they’re harder to uproot. No guarantees: some fish are just naturally gifted at destruction and will take your plants out no matter what steps you take. (You gotta love their commitment) But if you want a fighting chance? These are your best bet.
Want more tough aquarium plants that can stand up to anything? Check out some EXTREME Aquarium Plants that can handle cichlids and everything else you can throw at them. Or, have another species you're not sure you can keep plants with? Here's a blog post on "Aquarium Plants for Non-Fish Species"
Dustin actually did a series on this on his YouTube channel, so if you want more info, go check it out!
Links to the videos:
Aquarium Plant Eating Fish Combinations for the Planted Tank (feat. Dustin biting an Anubias to prove how tough their leaves are)
Got cool blog topic ideas? Hit us up, and tank on!
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