Category: Plants

How to keep, grow and propagate plants.

A Fishkeeper’s Guide To Aquarium Plants Author

A Fishkeeper’s Guide to Aquarium Plants is by Barry James and is published by Tetra Press. The first edition was out in 1986, however this is the revised edition 1997.

I have to admit that this is one of the better plant books that I have found. It’s easy to understand and to follow. In other words it’s written in a way that I can understand it. It has 116 glossy pages with lots of colorful pictures to help the hobbyist identify plants.

It starts with an introduction, then goes on to talk about photosynthesis, respiration, water hardness and pH. Fertilization, filtration as well as heat and lighting are also explained. Attention was also given to substrate and additives. There is a 16-page section on aquascaping. This is great because it helps with plant placement, as well as ecological aquascapes. Then there are two pages on algae and algae control.

There are six pages explaining plant propagation. I was really impressed with this section. It explains in full detail and simple English how to propagate most aquarium plants. It even discusses tissue culture, which is not for the ordinary hobbyist, but is very interesting anyway.

Along with the classification of plants, is a full page on recognizing and treating plant diseases. Very informative!

Part two of this book is the species section. This author freely admits that there are thousands of species, however this book features a representative selection of 68 species, plus references to similar species of interest to the hobbyist. It starts with descriptive terms used in the species section. Which contains black and white pictures of leaves and plant stems and the descriptive term underneath. Have you ever read these terms and wondered what they were talking about. Now it’s much clearer.

The rest of this section describes the plants with very nice photos of most. Each description contains substrate, lighting, pH values, hardness, and temperature. It also contains height, distribution, characteristics, aquarium use, propagation, and varieties or closely related species.

It ends with a three-page index and a page of picture credits.

The only down fall that I can see with this book is that it could contain many more plants. With the limited number of plants in this book, it may be possible to have an aquarium plant that is not included.

Other wise, I was quite impressed with this book as is obvious by my rambling, I just wish I would have found it a few years ago (the first edition).

This is a good starter book for anyone just starting out with aquarium plants. Or for someone like me who has been keeping aquarium plants on and off for years, and have been wondering what some of these other books are talking about.

Happy reading ! ?

Fish as Filters

As most of you know, one of the most frustrating things about aquarium keeping is the need to filter noxious compounds from the water. These compounds are the metabolic products of living things in the tank. The most troublesome of these is oxygen. While our plants need oxygen for respiration, they produce far more oxygen during the day than they need at night. The result is that oxygen accumulates until the water is saturated with it, then it starts to bubble to the surface.

This oxygen saturation has two major effects. First, it oxidizes trace elements to a form that is not readily absorbed by the plants. We spend a considerable amount of money in trace element fertilizers to ensure that our plants are at their best health. The last thing we want is for these trace elements to be oxidized before our plants can absorb them. Second, oxygen promotes the growth of nitrifying bacteria. These bacteria convert ammonium to nitrite and then nitrate. Our plants would much rather deal with ammonium than nitrate, and Cryptocoryne species will rot after absorbing nitrates. Again the efficiency of fertilizers, in this case ammonium fertilizers, is drastically reduced.

Needless to say, this excess oxygen must be removed if we want to keep healthy plants. One low-tech solution is to introduce an airstone into the tank. This is inexpensive though the hum of the air pump and the resulting bubbles may not be a welcome addition to our serene aquarium setting. Furthermore, the bubbling will try to equalize the concentration of other gases in the water to that of the atmosphere. If we inject carbon dioxide in the water, the bubbling will reduce the levels of carbon dioxide. Also, there is no way to control the concentration of dissolved gases. A much more effective solution is the use of one of the deoxygenation units that are now available. The German ones are very precise and allow us to set the gas concentration to a desired level so there is enough oxygen for respiration and the carbon dioxide remains in solution. Unfortunately these units are hideously expensive and difficult to find in North America.

But while doing some research I stumbled upon what is a low-tech and efficient solution to the oxygen problem: animals, particularly fish. Animals require oxygen for respiration like our plants, but unlike them they are not photosynthetic. They cannot generate oxygen. Furthermore besides carbon dioxide their metabolism creates nitrogen compounds, particularly ammonium, and phosphates. Fish in particular are very suited to our purpose as they come in various shapes, sizes, and colors to suit our aquascaping. Further research revealed that the cost of the food required to keep fish healthy is much less than the cost of ammonium fertilizers. What we have here is a cheap, low maintenance deoxygenator and fertilizer dispenser, all wrapped in a conveniently shaped package.

Fish have other advantages too. Some are algae eaters and will be more than pleased to graze on any algae that finds its way to our tanks. This is particularly helpful in the early stages, just after the tank has been set up. Other fish are nocturnal, so they spend their days hidden out of sight. These fish do not need to match our decor as they will be often unseen. Also for us who use sand as a substrate, and are tired of raking the sand with the Amano aquascaping rake, there are fish that feed off the substrate. These fish, particularly “loaches” and “corys”, are always digging in the sand in search of food, ensuring that it does not form a hard crust. Loaches are also known to eat snails, which could be either a good thing or a bad thing depending on the type of snails one has.

Some people discover that they enjoy fish so much that they seem to forget the original purpose of the aquarium and begin to ignore plants. Some even go to extremes and set up “fish-rooms” full of fish-only tanks. Others, perhaps in an attempt to disguise their dislike for plants, buy elaborate and expensive plastic plants. I will not discuss these extremes here, but I would like to mention that fish are not without their disadvantages. Some fish, particularly cichlids, are known to destroy plants and rearrange the substrate as part of their territorial behavior. Others are notorious plant eaters and some, like the guppy, breed like duckweed and threaten to overpopulate our tanks. Therefore one must be careful about the fish selection to ensure the fish are compatible with our plants and each other. Unlike plants where size differences aren’t a problem, larger fish tend to eat smaller fish. Luckily now there are many books that describe fish and their habits in detail.

What we don’t have though are tables listing the efficiency of fish as oxygen consumers, by size and numbers, in relation to temperature. One must start with a few fish and gauge their ammonium production through test kits or algae growth. Though not easy to measure, oxygen levels should decrease after fish are added. One beneficial side effect of fish food is that it can also be consumed by protozoans and anaerobic bacteria with the beneficial results ammonium production. So there is no need to increase the fish population if the ammonium levels are still too low, it is just a matter of feeding more. Too much feeding is not a good idea though, as the bacteria will cloud the water.

So, even though we cannot expect to have a perfect balance between plants and fish in our aquaria, the two are complementary and contribute to a more balanced setting. For those of us on a low budget or who prefer a more balanced approach to our hobby, fish offer a good solution to the oxygen and fertilizer problem.


Riehl, Rüdiger, & Baensch, Hans A. (1986). Aquarium Atlas. Melle, Germany: MERGUS-Verlag.

Scheurmann, Ines. (1985). The New Aquarium Handbook. Woodbury, NY: Barron’s Educational Series Inc.

Verde, Polegar. (1992). Besteiras Sobre Plantas e Peixes no Aquário. Rio de Janeiro, Brazil: Editora Primeira de Abril.?

Fish and Plants

As anyone who has kept plants and fish together know, some species of fish either don’t like plants, or like them too much. So we end up seeing our valuable plants getting uprooted, mangled or eaten. At times even fish that are supposed to be plant-friendly end up being plant hazards. I will cover some of them this month.

Marbled headstander (Abramites hypselonotus). A very interesting fish that swims with its head down, until it decides to dart across the tank when it swims horizontally. Supposedly a limnivore (mud eater) and herbivore that will eat tender plant shoots. Well, never mind the tender shoots, what this fish really likes is to chew the stems of swordplant (Echinodorus) leaves. There are few things as frustrating as finding large Amazon swordplant leaves floating at the surface, with only the tip of the stems chewed up. Not one or two, but half a dozen per day! The young leaves were unharmed. The fish also caused the vals to become ingrown. I would find two or three plants growing on top of each other, with the tip of their leaves chewed up. I believe this fish may be telepathic, for on two occasions that I found a long forgotten plant doing really well, the fish found and dispatched the plant by the next day. Despite all this the headstander was my favorite fish, and the last troublemaker to leave the tank. I gave it away to a good home and it is doing very well.

Siamese algae eater (Crossocheilus siamensis). This fish does an excellent job cleaning the furry types of algae, yet it is gentle enough not to damage tender plants like stargrass (Heteranthera zosterifolia), and it won’t harm the smallest fish in your tank. Get a couple of full grown SAEs determined to get at the frozen brine shrimp that got lodged under the Anubias and you get a new floating plant. These guys ram into the rhizome and push their heads between it and the sand. Gradually the plant gets uprooted and floats. They do uproot very small plants regularly, so grow your little plants in another tank first.

Young Corydoras schwartzi. What damage could these cute little catfish do? Well they pushed the sand from around the Anubias to get at the brine shrimp, prompting the SAEs to start their ramming attacks. The Anubias is fine, and the whole thing was quite fun to watch, particularly since I didn’t know why the plant was not rooting properly.

Bristle-nose pleco (Ancistrus dolichopterus). Excellent algae eater, particularly for the types that have to be scraped. For a while I couldn’t understand the cause of the white patches in my Amazon swordplants. These patches would eventually rot, creating holes in the leaves. Some plants even resembled Madagascar lace plants (Aponogeton madagascariensis). I determined the cause to be a severe case of “ancistrosis”. If you don’t have enough algae in your tank, and there is not enough food left at night when these guys like to roam, the hard-leafed plants make an excellent meal. Wardley Spirulina Disks apparently are not as tasty as Amazon swordplants. I determined that four adult fish and about thirty growing fry were more than my plants count handle. Once I lightened the Ancistrus load the plants recovered. Also, make sure you have some real driftwood in your tank for they love eating wood.

Severum (Heros severus). Now what is a big cichlid doing in a planted tank? According to my books severums are neither plant eaters nor burrowers. But as intelligent as cichlids may be, they don’t read fish books. My severums decimated the vals, ate most of my prized Sagittaria, and chewed up the Amazon swordplants badly. The stargrasses were saved only by shear numbers and growth rate. The severums did a good job on the hair algae too. They seemed to fight with it, ripping it from anything it was attached to. To prove that severums like their veggies I stuck a small head of broccoli in the sand. In no time all of them were noisily crunching the broccoli. There was nothing left of it next day. I never had a problem with them burrowing though.

Smiling acara or curviceps (Laetacara curviceps). This cichlid is plant-safe, except for small plants. Like the severums it doesn’t read books, so it doesn’t know that the crowns of Cryptocoryne, val, and Amazon swordplants are supposed to stay above the substrate. My pair is constantly remodeling the floor of their tank, moving sand here and there and burying all the small plants.

Rainbowfish (Melanotaenia spp.). I have two species Melanotaenia splendida splendida and M. praecox. Both like to nibble on tender leaves and are doing a number on the ludwigias and stargrasses. I confirmed that they eat algae. The M. splendida cleaned up a tuft that developed on a piece of driftwood very near the water surface. The SAEs are surface challenged, so the tuft grew until I added the rainbows. They don’t mess with the harder-leaved plants.

So, with the exception of the severums and the headstander, the fish mentioned here are not at all bad. If we keep fish that may eat plants we must be aware of their dietary needs and cater for them accordingly. Don’t assume they will eat algae and leave the other plants alone. As I found out, even feeding with fish food specially formulated for herbivores is no guarantee the plants will not be touched. A well planted tank with only a couple of well fed possible herbivores shouldn’t have any problems as long as the plants are doing well. On the other hand, what to do when your plants are taking over the tank? Feed them to the herbivores!



Riehl, Rüdiger, & Baensch, Hans A. (1986). Aquarium Atlas. Melle, Germany: MERGUS-Verlag. ?