10 Easy Plants For African Cichlid Aquariums


10 Easy Plants for African Cichlid Aquariums

When you think of the stereotypical aquarium for African cichlids, it usually has a somewhat barren appearance consisting of sand, rockwork, and maybe fake decorations. One reason there are no live plants is that (1) many herbivorous and omnivorous cichlids such as mbunas enjoy eating vegetation, and (2) some of them love digging to create spawning spots, which inadvertently plants. Aquarium Co-Op loves aquarium plants for their beauty and ability to absorb excess nitrogen. Therefore, we have spent years experimenting with and searching for the most “cichlid-proof” plants. Discover the top 10 easiest plants that have survived and performed well with African cichlids.

Floating Plants

Aquatic plants that float at the surface are perfect because they do not grow in the ground and therefore cannot be uprooted by fish. Plus, they are known for being fast growers that suck up tons of nitrate and phosphate, helping to purify the tank water. However, many floating plants are quite tasty to mbunas and peacocks, so you have to find species that are unpalatable to fish.

Hornwort floating on the water surface

Hornwort (Ceratophyllum desmersum) is a floating herb we have had great success with. They are the most notorious of all African cichlid plant-eaters. Their pine needle-like, fluffy leaves are quite hardy and slightly serrated. Although some African cichlids might try to eat them or tear off a piece, the damage is not noticeable because hornwort grows so quickly. It is important to remember that this plant can shed its fine needles if it runs out of nutrients. This can cause a lot of damage and may be difficult to clean up. Our full care guide has more information about hornwort.

Cabomba (Cabomba spp.) is a stem plant that can also be grown by floating it at the surface. It has a feathery appearance and is a little more delicate than hornwort, but fish seem to dislike its taste all the same. If given enough light, it can grow quite quickly. In fact, some states like Washington and California label cabomba as an invasive species, so check with your local government laws to see if it is legal in your area.

Plants for Epiphyte

An epiphyte plant is another type that doesn’t require a substrate. They are often attached to rock, driftwood or other decorations to stop them being knocked around. You can fasten them to objects using fishing line, sewing thread, or even super glue gel. If your newly purchased epiphyte comes inside a plastic basket, you can place a root tab inside the rock wool and then slip the basket inside an Easy Planter rock decoration. A lot of epiphyte plants have an rhizome (or horizontal root). If you do not want to cover the rhizome with substrate or glue, it can begin to deteriorate.

Anubias plants are popular for their ease of use, low light requirements, and wide range of sizes. We recommend larger species, such as Anubias coffeefolia and Anubias barteri. They have thick, tough leaves and strong rhizomes, which can take a beating.

Anubias inside an Easy Planter decoration

Java ferns are similar to anubias because of their easy care, low light requirements, and durable leaves. Some of the most common varieties include regular java fern, Windelov (or lace) java fern, and narrow leaf java fern. It is easy to propagate them by either splitting the rhizome or cutting off a leaf, and letting tiny plantlets grow from the black dots at the leaf’s bottom.

Bolbitis (Bolbitis heudelotii), is a stunning epiphyte, with textured and vivid green leaves. They can grow large enough to be used as a background or even a primary plant. The African water fern is also known. It can thrive in waters with high pH levels and high GH, which are what African cichlids love. Although epiphytes are slower than floating plants, bolbitis is able to grow into a large bush that can dominate any medium-sized tank.

Java moss (Taxiphyllum barbieri) is a slow-growing but hardy moss that looks beautiful when attached to rocks and driftwood. Some of them are sold already affixed to a wire mesh, which can be used to grow a fuzzy carpet or moss wall. Java moss, unlike the other three plants, does not have roots or a rhizome. Instead it spreads through “sticky” Rhizoids that stick to surfaces.

Rooted Plants

With fish that constantly dig to find food or establish spawning sites, it may seem impossible to keep plants that grow from the substrate. However, there are a few species of plants that can be kept grounded by fish that dig for food or establish spawning sites.

A forest for vallisneria

Vallisneria can be found in Lake Tanganyika as a wild plant. It thrives in higher pH and higher GH. Many varieties are available for sale in the hobby, including Vallisneria spiralis and its bigger cousin Vallisneria americana. This grass-like, tall plant blocks aggression by blocking line of vision. Plus, it proliferates quite rapidly and can transform your fish tank into an underwater jungle for your fish to weave in and out of. We love to keep the vallisneria alive in their original plastic pots, with some root tabs for additional nutrients. Then we place them in an Easy Planter for extra protection. Easy Green all-in one fertilizer can be added to the water. Once the plant starts producing runners, it will spread out across the substrate like a daisy chain. Once you have a thick forest of val and the roots are firmly attached, then add the fish. For more information on how to set up an African cichlid tank with vallisneria, read the full article.

Crinum calomistratum also known as African onion plant is a slow-growing bulb plants that prefers alkaline water. It’s a great centerpiece plant for bigger aquariums because it has tough, crinkly leaves that can grow up to 4 feet (1.2 m) long. To prevent the bulb from being thrown away, place it on top of the substrate. The crinum may not be used to your water conditions and the leaves may start to melt. However, if you give it low to medium light and keep it from being moved, the bulb will start making long, ruffled tendrils that reach all the way to the water surface.

Amazon sword surrounded by rocks to prevent goldfish from uprooting it

Sword plants, like the red flame sword, red Amazon sword and red melon blade, get the nickname “tank busters” due to their large leaves and long roots that can take over an entire aquarium of medium size. Because they have a strong root system, they can survive being cut down as long as the plants are established before adding African Cichlids. Although melting may occur when the plant is first introduced to an aquarium, it will recover quickly if it is fed plenty of root tabs and nutrient-rich substrate. Instead of using the Easy Planter, we prefer a barrier of rockwork or decorations so they can be easily moved as the plant grows bigger and bigger.

Emergent Plants

If your cichlids are bound and determined to eat every last bit of vegetation they find, then your best course of action is to grow emersed plants out of the tank.


(Epipremnum aureum),

lucky bamboo

(Dracaena Sanderiana),


are all plants that we have grown with their leaves above the water and their roots in the water. The aquarium allows the plants to draw nutrients and keeps the leaves safe from hungry fish. Most of the time, the fish seem to leave the roots alone, but if they keep nibbling on them, consider placing the plant in a hang-on-back filter or a plant basket that hooks onto the aquarium rim.

Pothos leaves growing roots in water, without substrate

These “cichlid-proof plants” are not guaranteed to work. However, we hope they will be useful in African cichlid aquariums. Smaller cichlids are often less destructive than larger ones, so check out our list of top 10 cichlids we love to keep in a 29-gallon fish tank.