Tissue Culture vs. Potted Plants
Written by Tammy Law (@aquarist_tl)
Planted-tank hobbyists have always been able to pick and choose which aquatic plant species they would like to add to their planted aquarium judging by each plant’s look, size, and difficulty... Every aquascaper has a different preferences for their aquascapes. Now, they’re even able to select their plants based on how the plant was grown!
In the past, aquarium plants typically only came in the form of potted or bunched plants that we commonly see in the tanks of fish stores and pet shops. In more recent years, some of these plants can now be found in tiny sealed cups of tissue culture and leave out the worry of bringing unwanted pests or algae to your beloved aquascape.
This article will explore the differences between tissue culture and potted plants, the benefits and disadvantages (pros and cons) of each, and which might be more suitable for your aquarium.
What's the difference between potted, bunched, and TC?
Potted and Bunched
Potted and bunched plants have been around in the hobby for a long time now, and have been the most common form in which aquarium hobbyists have bought their plants.
Potted plants are generally in plastic net pots with rock wool surrounding the roots, giving them something take a hold of, keeping the plant weighted down, and retaining moisture.
Bunched plants (or "lead bunch" plants) are usually stem plants that have been trimmed to the same height and placed in portions of three or more stems. These stems are typically wrapped with a slim foam material to protect the roots with lead plant weights around the bottom.
- Disclaimer: Contrary to the common name, lead weights are actually no longer made of lead. They are made up of a magnesium-zinc alloy making them completely harmless to your shrimp and fishy friends. Although the materials have changed, the common name is still used among hobbyists. Lead weights, or as we like to call them, 'plant weights,' can be used for an assortment of things in aquascaping. For instance, they can easily be cut up into smaller pieces and wrapped around the rhizomes of plants to prevent them from floating.
Bacopa Monnieri lead bunch
Both potted and lead bunch plants come from aquatic plant farms, where they are usually grown emersed (above the surface of the water). Growing the plants emersed helps the plants grow faster, lowers the possibility of algae growing on them, and aids in a higher survival rate when being shipped. Although, some hobbyists may struggle with the plant's initial transition period from emersed to submerged that the plants must undergo after aquascapers place them in their aquarium. The key is to make sure they are being planted properly, continue to trim off any melted or dying leaves, and keep up with water changes.
Tissue culture plants came into the scene a few years ago and are now widely accessible to many hobbyists through their local aquarium stores and online retailers (aka Buce Plant!) Invitro plants are grown in laboratories where the tissue of the plant is harvested and then placed into a growth medium full of hormones and nutrients that excel the growth of the tissue to form the actual plants. When purchasing, the plants are in sealed plastic cups with a jelly or liquid substance on the bottom. This substance is the nutrient-packed growth medium aiding them in their growth and survival. The cup is sealed to maintain 100% humidity, preventing the plants from drying out. Click here to view a wide selection of tissue culture plants.
Pros & Cons
Tissue Culture Pros
The biggest advantage of tissue cultures over potted/bunched plants is that they are 100% sterile. Invitro plants are the purest form that you can buy your plants in. They are designed to be free of pests (e.g. snails, planarians, etc.) and algae, so you can start off your aquarium without worry. Tissue culture plants also won’t have harmful pesticides or pathogens attached to them, making them a safe choice for aquariums with inhabitants already in them.
While they may be more costly, you can actually get more bang for your buck. These cups typically come with a lot more plantlets compared to their potted/bunched versions, sometimes even tenfold!
Invitro plants are also quite easy to prepare. When you’re ready to add them into the aquarium, simply open the cup they are in and gently pull out the plants. Then, rinse the plants in a container of water to remove the jelly or liquid substance that the roots were in. After that, separate the plants into smaller portions that you will plant into the tank, and you’re good to go!
Alternanthera Reineckii 'Mini' tissue culture
Unfortunately, the sterility of invitro plants also comes with some downsides. Since they are so clean, the plants will take longer to adapt to their new aquarium because they are going from a place with zero germs to an aquarium full of bacteria. This also means the plants are more fragile, and the likelihood of melting in the first few stages of being added into the aquarium is higher.
The tissue culture plants are also very tiny from growing in such compact conditions, so it will take a while before their size is normalized and you get the lush planted aquarium look that you may be trying to achieve.
Lastly, these tissue cultures don’t last forever, and can go bad after several weeks if left in the container. Make sure to buy fresh cultures and plant them as soon as possible while they’re still healthy.
Tip: Keep tissue cultures in a bright and cool area for storage to help it thrive longer in the cup.
Hydrocotyle Tripartita tissue culture emersed growth
Although potted plants are old-school, that does not mean they are worse than their newer lab-originating versions. The biggest advantage they have over invitro plants is that they are strong. Potted/bunched plants are much more robust and are typically not as ready to melt after being placed into a tank as their tissue culture counterparts. Especially in low-tech setups with no CO2, potted plants have a much better advantage. They acclimate fairly quickly to the aquarium, soon growing new submerged leaves to eventually replace the emersed grown ones.
These plants also have a height advantage compared to small tissue culture plants. It’s easier for them to reach the light, and they are less likely to get shaded from hardscapes or other taller plants.
Java Fern Narrow planted from pot
While robustness is an excellent trait to have for aquatic plants, there are a few disadvantages to potted/bunched plants. If you are looking to design a large tank with plants almost everywhere, it can be quite costly with potted/bunched plants. These versions don’t provide as many portions as tissue cultures, so you may have to buy a lot of pots to fill in the spaces you’re looking to plant.
There is also the possibility of adding pests, pesticides, pathogens, algae, or unwanted plants like duckweed into the aquarium through these plants. However, this can be solved by thoroughly cleaning your plants with a bleach dip.
Click here to learn how to properly bleach dip your aquatic plants.
Lastly, potted plants can be a nuisance to prepare because the rock wool can get stuck deep in the roots of the plant, making it difficult to take off. It is recommended to remove as much rock wool as possible because adding it into the tank would be adding more waste into it.
Which to Use?
Whether you should use tissue cultures or potted/bunched plants typically depends on the state your aquarium is in and what exactly you want in the aquarium. Although either one will do great as long as the plants are put in a nutrient-rich environment, one form may be a better option than the other given the circumstances it will be placed in.
For example, if you have a brand-new setup and you are going for a high-tech fully planted tank with a carpet, stem plants, etc. then I would recommend tissue cultures. It’s always nice to have a clean start, and the sterility of the tissue cultures will help keep the tank pest-free. The invitro plants also usually come with many plantlets, making it cheaper when trying to cover the tank with carpeting plants than if you were to use potted plants.
If you have an already established tank and are just looking to add a new plant or two, then I would recommend adding potted/bunched plants (after a proper bleach dip). The robustness and height of these versions would give them more of a fighting chance to adjust to their new environment. Especially in low-tech setups with no CO2, tissue culture plants would have a hard time adapting to the tank while competing with the already established plants in the aquarium.
- Tip: Pinsettes, like the Ultum Nature System pinsettes, are highly recommended to use when planting and will help tremendously in plant placement. Once the plants are cleaned and prepped, take your pinsettes and pinch the lower root portion of your plant portion’s clump, dig the fragment of the plant straight into the soil until it is buried halfway into the aquatic soil, turn your pinsettes down a few degrees, all while you slowly release tension and then slowly pull out from the soil.
All of these aquatic plant options can be intimidating to hobbyists new to the scene. Hopefully this article was able to answer some questions you may have had and help you on your road to aquascaping!