Aquascaping is the process of using aquatic plants, rocks, and driftwood, to design a “scape” or underwater scene to mimic nature, or simply please the eye.

When designing an eye-catching  aquascape, it helps to think about aesthetic concepts, like the rule of thirds and the golden ratio, but knowing which aquatic plants to use in your scape is also crucial.

This article will help you understand which plants will grow well in low tech to medium tech tanks.

While most plants will benefit greatly from adding C02 to your tank, this article will focus on plants that can grow well without added CO2 because setting up a CO2 system is pricey.

Judging the Best Aquascaping Plants

My criteria for being the “best” aquarium plant for aquascaping boils down to whether the plant:

1) Creates aesthetic contrast;

2) Is easy to care for; and

3) Does not require CO2

Here are my top picks:

1) Java Fern (Microsorum pteropus)

Java Fern on aquascaping stone.

Light: Low

Needs substrate: No

Position: Midground to background

Regular java fern makes an excellent background plant in smaller tanks (3-5 gallons) and midground plant in bigger tanks (10+ gallons).

Java fern is a versatile plant for aquascaping because it does not need substrate to grow.

In fact, java fern does best when attached to rocks and driftwood, which makes it perfect for aquascaping.

One variety of Java fern, Microsorum windelov, grows leaves that have finger-like leaf tips.

Java fern windelov almost looks like a completely different plant and provides excellent contrast, even when placed near regular Java fern.

For low-tech nano aquascapes, it is nearly impossible to beat the versatility and beauty of Java fern.

2) Cryptocoryne Wendtii 

Cryptocoryne plant for aquascaping.

Light: Low

Needs substrate: Yes

Position: Midground to background

Cryptocoryne plants, like Cryptocoryne wendtii, tend to be an afterthought for some aquascapers because these aquatic plants are less “showy,” with unassuming spade shaped leaves.

But, cryptocoryne plants should not be overlooked for aquascaping purposes.

Unlike demanding root plants like Amazon swords, cryptocorynes can thrive in tanks with little added fertilizer.

Although cryptocoryne prefer nutrient rich substrate, they will happily grow in low light and low-tech environments.

Cryptocorynes are best used as a midground cover, adding visual appeal to areas near rocks and wood.

Cryptocoryne plants are available in a variety of colors, from light green to reddish brown leaves, adding contrast to areas where dark green plants are dominant.

They can also be used as background cover in smaller tanks, especially when your cryptocornes produce a healthy collection of leaves.

The other appealing aspect of cryptocoryne plants is their hardiness and relatively quick growth.

Once planted and left undisturbed, cryptocorynes will quickly sprout new leaves and bring lushness to that area of the tank.

When buying cryptocorynes online or at your local pet store, be aware that these aquatic plants are sensitive to change.

Often a newly planted cryptocoryne plant will experience “melt,” where the plant’s leaves slowly dissolve in a mushy mess.

But, your cryptocoryne is not dead, and will sprout new leaves in a few days, unless your plant is attacked by fungus or some other pest.

Cryptocoryne plants are probably the easiest rooting (as opposed to a rhizome) plant to keep in an aquarium.

And they are commonly available in pet stores, unlike some of the plants mentioned below.

Cryptocorynes may not be showstoppers plants, but when used in conjunction with other aquascaping plants, they provide texture and contrast that will further elevate the beauty of your other plants.

3) Hygrophila Pinnatifida

Hygrophila pinnatifida aquarium plant for aquascaping.

Light: Moderate

Needs substrate: No

Position: Midground to background

Hygrophila pinnatifida comes from India and is relatively easy to care for.

The most striking feature of this plant for aquascaping purposes is its fern or feather-like leaves, which have a prehistoric look.

Hygrophila pinnatifida’s leaves are a lighter green with some red-ish hues on the undersides.

This makes a stunning midground plant, especially when attached to driftwood or poking out of rock crevices.

While it can be planted in the substrate, Hygrophila pinnatifida seems to prefer being attaching to wood and rocks.

If you buy this plant online, you may receive plants that have been grown emersed (grown outside water) and so your plant may shed its leaves before sprouting new submerged leafs (underwater growth).

4) Hydrocotyle Tripartita

Hydrocotyle tripartita in an aquascape.
Hydrocotyle tripartita in the midground branching out like a vine.

Light: Moderate to Intense

Needs substrate: Yes

Position: Foreground, midground, or background

Hydrocotyle tripartita (Dwarf Pennywort) is one of many hydrocotle plants available in the aquarium hobby.

A variant of hydrocotyle tripartita, known as “Japan” or “sp. Japan,” has small, almost clover-like, leaves that remind me of a terrestrial plant you would find in the jungle.

Hydrocotyle tripartita is a joy to keep as it slowly (or quickly if given C02) inches its way toward your aquarium light and stretches out like a jungle vine.

While hydrocotyle triparitita is not “difficult” to keep, it can be finicky, especially under low light conditions where it refuses to put out new leaves and is sometimes overpowered by hair algae.

If you want your hydrocotyle tripartita to thrive and become like a vine, providing a strong light and fertilizer is key.

C02 is not required for this plant but, like most aquarium plants, C02 will make a huge difference in how fast and in how many leaves your plant produces.

5) Staurogyne Repens

Staurogyne repens in an aquascape.

Light: Moderate to Intense

Needs substrate: Yes

Position: Foreground carpet or midground

Staurogyne repens is a leafy stem plant with an awesome name (sounds like “star ocean repens” or something).

Staurogyne repens tolerates relatively low light and may even grow under an aquarium kit light, but growth tends to be slow and the plant will become “leggy” or stretched out as it tries to reach the light source.

Under intense light, especially when given fertilizer and/or C02, staurogyne repens grows into a lush mat, and can actually be used as a carpeting plant, but probably functions better as a midground carpet.

Staurogyne repens will sprout roots along its stem and can be easily propagated by cutting off some new growth and replanting it next to the original plant.

6) Anubias Barteri

Anubias aquarium plant in an aquascape.

Light: Low

Needs substrate: No

Position: Midground to background

Loyal readers will know that Anubias plants are one of my all time favorite aquarium plants.

The thick leaves of an Anubias stay a deep green color, especially under low light, and are not easily damaged by snails or curious fish.

In aquascaping, anubias plants are extremely versatile.

They can be attached to rocks and driftwood, or tucked into crevices where other plants would fail to grow.

Because anubias plants grow from a rhizome, they do not require substrate to grow.

Instead, they will absorb nutrients through their leaves, and store any excess in their rhizome.

Like other aquarium plants, anubias plants benefit from fertilizer, but are truly one of the few plants that seems capable of surviving solely on the nutrients provided by water changes and fish waste.

7) Micranthemum “Monte Carlo” 

A cherry shrimp looking for food on a carpet of Monte Carlo

Light: Moderate to intense

Needs substrate: Yes

Position: Foreground carpeting plant

Micranthemum, commonly known as Monte Carlo, is an aquarium plant with extremely small leaves, making it an ideal foreground carpeting plant.

If you search for aquascapes online, you will notice that many aquascapers use micranthemum to create verdant green slopes that mimic a grassy hill or mountain.

This makes Monte Carlo an exciting plant to use in aquascapes.

But, Monte carlo is not a quick grower underwater.

In fact, many aquascapers will use a “dry start” method, which involves planting micranthemum in substrate before filling the tank with water.

The dry start tank is typically covered with a lid or plastic wrap to keep moisture in and left to grow for as long as it takes to create a carpet and strong root structure (this may take over a month).

Micranthemum grows faster outside water because it has easier access to C02.

Micranthemum can be grown underwater without C02, but growth is painfully slow.

Out of all the plants on this list, Micranthemum “Monte Carlo” is perhaps the plant most in need of C02 if you want a thick, healthy looking carpet in your tank.

That being said, it is definitely possible to grow Monte Carlo with intense light and fertilizer.

8) Java Moss (Vesicularia dubyana)

Java moss in an aquascape.

Light: Low

Needs substrate: No

Position: Foreground and on hardscape

Java moss is a classic aquarium plant that tolerates low light better than any other aquarium plant (in my experience).

Java moss is happy to grow in low-tech tanks with only an aquarium kit light and is equally happy growing in high tech aquascapes with C02 and fertilizer.

Java moss is best used attached to rocks and wood, where it will anchor itself and continue to spread along the hardscape.

Creative aquascapers also use java moss as a foreground carpet by attaching the moss to a mesh screen or slab of stone and nesting it into the gravel or substrate.

Java moss is also ideal for shrimp tanks, providing a place for young aquarium shrimp to hide and graze on algae.

9) Weeping Moss (Vesicularia ferriei)

A cherry shrimp sitting on weeping moss in an aquarium.

Light: Low

Needs substrate: No

Position: Foreground and on hardscape

Weeping moss serves the same functions as java moss for aquascaping.

But, in a weeping moss vs. java moss battle, weeping moss would win based on looks and java moss would win based on affordability and availability.

Compared to java moss, weeping moss is less wild looking and droops more dramatically, like a weeping willow.

When attached to hardscape, weeping moss creates an intricate and elegant web of tendrils.

But, weeping moss does not attach itself as easily to aquarium rocks and wood as java moss and may need to be tied down with fishing line or super glued to the hardscape.

Conclusion

Aquascaping is about creating beauty in a confined space.

Aquascapers create beauty by positioning stones, wood, substrate, and aquatic plants in a pleasing design.

Anyone can become a skilled aquascaper with practice, and like art, “good” aquascapes are based on the perception of the viewer.

Selecting the best plants for your aquascape is a crucial step.

Many aquascapers choose to only use stones in a scape, while other aquascapers only use driftwood, but nearly all aquascapes use plants in conjunction with these other components to create a visual master piece.

Some aquascapes, typically Dutch aquascapes, only use plants, relying on the different textures and colors of aquatic plants to achieve depth and contrast.

If you want to learn more about which substrates and gravels to use in an aquascape, check out my article on the best substrates for planted tanks.

Also, read my article on the best LED lights for growing aquarium plants, it will help you find affordable lights that grow aquarium plants.

If you feel like starting with a planted tank before diving into aquascaping, check out my article on setting up a planted tank.

And for those who are ready to aquascape, my step-by-step guide on building a 5 gallon aquascape provides both a video tutorial as well as a written explanation of the entire process.

Finally, if you would like to keep aquarium shrimp in your tank, take a look at my article on freshwater aquarium shrimp for beginners.

As always, stay zen aquarists.

About The Author

Kevin is a betta fish keeper and planted tank enthusiast with over 16 years of experience as an aquarist. His mission with ZenAquaria is to help other aquarists experience the joy of fish keeping (and shrimp keeping) and the satisfaction of a well planted tank.

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