Top 10 Stem Plants for a Planted Aquarium
Written by: Chris (@shrimpery)
One of the most important elements of a successful aquascape is the use of aquatic plants. Among them, stem plants have emerged as a favorite choice for many aquascapers due to their versatility, ease of maintenance, and ability to provide depth and movement to the layout.
For most aquascapers, beautiful, pristine groupings of stem plants are the centerpiece of a high-tech aquascape (let's forget about Iwagumi-style tanks for a moment.) While there are countless stem plants out there, everyone has favorites. In this article, I will be discussing the top 10 aquatic stem plants that are commonly used in the aquascaping hobby.
Whether you're just starting out or are a seasoned aquascaper, this list of aquarium plants will provide valuable information for choosing the best options for your aquascape. As we dive in, it's worth noting that all stem plants have unique characteristics and it is important to understand the growth pattern and maintenance requirements before selecting which plant to use in your aquascape.
Here are my favorite aquarium stem plants, ranked:
While this plant is a stem plant, it fills the same niche typically occupied by rosette plants such as Cryptocoryne: mid-ground color for the transition point from foreground to background. Although it is relatively hardy, it does grow quite slowly, and it needs high lighting and CO2 injection to look its best (much like the rest of the plants on the list). It can create a difficult-to-achieve dark red bush if planted densely enough under bright lighting.
If I were to rank these plants by the frequency of use in my aquariums, this plant would be #1, not #10. It's great for dense, bushy arrangements, and its tiny leaves and stems lend themselves a great sense of scale if used in the back of the tank. Of all the plants on this list, it's probably the easiest and most aggressive of the bunch. It can develop a running habit in open spaces and can easily infiltrate and take over other planted sections of your tank. Even individual leaf nodes from clippings can develop roots and grow into new plants.
Not to be overlooked, this classic variety of rotala lends a crisp and refreshing sense of greenery to any aquascape. Unlike other rotalas, it doesn't turn yellow or reddish under bright lighting conditions; this can be an advantage or a disadvantage, depending on how you use the plant. For me, its consistent greenery is a great benefit when used as a foil to other, more colorful rotala varieties. This stem is quite popular in Dutch aquariums.
This perennial plant boasts a wide array of colors ranging from green to pink to light purple, making it a versatile and striking addition to any aquascape. Its thin and pointy leaves grow in opposite pairs along the stem, providing a unique texture to the tank. With proper pruning, this plant will branch out and provide a bushy filler for the mid-ground or background of the tank. The plant can be grown both submersed and emersed, making it highly adaptable to different setups. CO2 injection is not mandatory but can help the plant grow more robustly.
This feathery plant is another great way to add some bright green color to your tank. Its fine, needle-like leaves look beautiful when grown under high-tech conditions, as tiny oxygen bubbles will accumulate on them and sparkle under the light. It's a relatively easygoing plants under the right conditions.
One of the few deep, almost-purple-red plants (most red plants have brighter, more primary or orange-tinged hues), this Ludwigia Super Red is one of the hardiest and reddest stem plants, even under less-than-optimal conditions. Unlike most red stem plants, it doesn't require CO2 to thrive and is a great choice for beginners. It's the perfect background plant for adding dimension and movement to an aquascape.
#4. Ludwigia Arcuata
This unique ludwigia has very fine, pine-needle-like leaves, and can be intensely red. It’s not the fastest growing plant, but can create a beautiful, dense bush if it’s not planted amongst more aggressive species. No other plant has quite the same appearance, so it’s great for injecting some texture and color into a scape. Like most stem plants, the more you trim it, the more branch points will form.
There is something truly special about Rotala Macrandra’s pinkish, jewel-like foliage. Unfortunately, unlike some of the other plants on this list, this plant will not last long without high-tech conditions if there are other plants in the tank that can out-compete it. It certainly won’t be its best self without supplemental CO2 and high-intensity lighting. It doesn’t branch as well as some other rotalas, but its larger leaves and more robust stems help maintain a dense arrangement regardless. It also comes in a mini variant and a greenish variant that are each nearly as stunning as the standard variety.
It’s hard for me to understand how relatively uncommon this plant is in the hobby, given that it’s one of the only aquascaping plants that is a bright, vibrant yellow hue. Unlike some rotalas, which can be a pale, yellowish orange, Nesaea Pedicellata 'Golden' really is a rich, golden hue. It’s relatively fast-growing under optimal conditions but will easily get crowded out by some of the other plants on this list.
Anyone who follows my Instagram won’t be surprised to see this live aquarium plant at the top of my list. Its colors are incredibly intense, and under bright lighting conditions, it will always be a vibrant red- even at the bottom of the stems or in the shade. It’s a very fast grower, unlike nearly all other truly red stem plants, and it branches extremely easily. It’s even a fast grower under less-than-optimal conditions. It’s just as visually stunning when planted in large groupings as it is when it’s planted interspersed among other stem plants for a more naturalistic look.
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