12 Low Light Aquarium Plants – Choose The Right Ones For You!

Are you looking for something to spruce up your aquarium but don’t want a lot of extra hassle? If so you should try a planted aquarium or planted tank.

Low light aquarium plants are a great addition and don’t need a lot of expensive gear. They are generally considered the easiest plants to grow in a planted tank.

With dozens of plants available, where do you start? And aside from plant selection, what else is needed?

How Much Light Do Low Light Plants Need?

If you are looking for easy plants for beginners low light plants are the way to go. They need less expensive lighting, grow slower and have fewer nutritional needs. But what is considered low light?

Technically speaking low light plants need 15-30 PAR (Photosynthetically Active Radiation). What in the world does that even mean? Most of us can’t afford an expensive PAR meter (~$350).

Without a PAR meter, there is no exact way to make sure you’re getting enough light. A good place to start would be 10-20 lumens per liter or 38-76 lumens per gallon. Many aquarium LED brands don’t advertise lumens, unfortunately. LED’s can produce anywhere between 30-90 lumens per watt. Take a look at the table below for rough conversions.

LED Watts to Lumens
WattsLumens
6375
10450
15800
191100
251600
382600
503000

Do you want to dive deeper into the light requirements for your particular aquarium? If so, check out this cool Light Calculator.

I just want to point out that these figures are just a starting point. They will give you a feel for what you may need. There are various factors that affect the light your plants actually receive. A little trial and error will be needed to make sure your plants are receiving the correct amount of light. 

aquatic plant care and nutrition

Aside from not needing an expensive lighting setup, there are some other benefits to low light  plants. Generally, they need less maintenance and pruning due to their slower growth.

Plants typically grow faster in a planted tank with lots of light. This means they may need at least weekly pruning or maintenance. Not to mention a costly and time-consuming CO2 set up. 

Additionally, they have lower nutritional requirements. Many won’t need any additional input. They naturally have everything they need in a fish bearing aquarium. Even so, most will benefit from something as simple as some root tabs and/or iron supplementation.

In short, low light plants are easy to care for and “almost” a set it and forget it addition to your planted tank. This is why they make such good plants for beginners.

The Best Low Light Aquarium Plants

This is by no means a complete list of low light plants. But, it does include many of the easiest and most popular varieties for a planted tank.

Java Fern (Microsorum Pteropus)

The Java fern is an amphibious jungle fern. It can be found growing at the water line of streams and waterfalls in tropical Asia. These areas are well shaded and receive a lot of “spray” from the rushing water.

They are also found fully submerged in the water and can survive there indefinitely. This, of course, makes them well suited to an aquarium.

There are many different Java fern varieties. These include Needle Leaf, Windilov, Narrow Leaf and Trident Java fern. These varieties are distinguished by their different leaf shapes and sizes. While there is variation, Java fern leaves all tend to be long and thin.

The leaves also have a leathery texture and are hardy. Leaf colors range from bright green to dark green. They can grow up to 13 inches tall and about 6-8 inches wide. They are best planted mid-tank or in the background. Java fern should not be placed in any tank smaller than 10 gallons.

The growth pattern and leaf color tends to be influenced by the amount of light they receive. More light and the leaves will be darker green and denser. Less light and they will be a bright green and more spread out.

Planting java fern is similar to other aquatic plants that have a rhizome root system. They often come pre-attached to driftwood or stone. If not already attached to something you can do so yourself with thread or plastic ties.

The plant will eventually anchor itself and the ties should be removed. Do not plant the rhizome in your substrate as it will rot and eventually die!

Difficulty: Easy

Ph: 6.0 – 7.5

Temp: 69 – 82° F

Growth Rate: Slow to moderate

Placement: Mid to background

Size: Medium, Up to 13 Inches Tall

Java Moss (Taxiphyllum barbieri)

Java moss is the most common aquarium moss available, and for good reason. Java moss care is simple and straightforward. This makes it one of the easiest aquarium plants to grow. I highly recommend Java Moss as one of your first aquarium plants.

It is found in nature on rocks, river banks, and tree trunks in Southeast Asia. This moss has few requirements. A true low light plant, it will grow easily and quickly with minimal light. It also does well in a wide range of water conditions.

A delicate moss, Java moss has small irregular shaped stems and leaves. Small in size and bright in color this moss is best suited to the foreground or front of your aquarium. Using a mesh for it to anchor to will create an appealing Java moss carpet. It can also be creatively attached to driftwood to create a java moss tree.

Because it is a moss it doesn’t have true roots but instead has a rhizomatous root system. These Rhizoids act as an anchor and will branch out and cling to surfaces. Not having true roots Java moss absorbs its nutrients through its stems and leaves.

Not only is Java moss used for its obvious visual appeal, but also as shelter. Many fish breeders like this moss as it creates an ideal place for eggs and fry to hide from larger fish.

Difficulty: Very easy

Ph: 5.5 – 8.0

Temp: 59 – 82° F

Growth Rate: Slow to Moderate

Placement: Foreground

Size: Small, 4 Inches Max

Anubias Barteri var. Barteri

There are a variety of Anubias aquarium plants available today. Popular varieties include var. barteri, var. coffeefolia, var. nana, and var. caladiifolia. Anubias barteri var. barteri is the most common of these.

This is a very hardy plant that can put up with a lot of abuse. Known for its large tough durable green leaves it can withstand many herbivorous fish. A downside to these large durable leaves is the fact that they can be ideal places for algae to grow. Ensuring the plant doesn’t receive too much light and is placed in an area with water movement can reduce this.

This is also one of the few live aquarium plants that will flower underwater. The flower is very similar to a tiny peace lily. This isn’t surprising since they both belong to the family Araceae.

This is a slow growing plant but given enough time it can grow up to 18 inches tall and as wide as most tanks. It can be placed mid-ground in most tanks and potentially used in the background of small tanks.

Difficulty: Easy

Ph: 6.5 – 7.8

Temp: 72 – 78° F

Growth Rate: Slow

Placement: Mid-ground

Size: Medium, Up to 18 Inches Tall

Anubias Barteri var. Nana

Anubias barteri var. Nana is a smaller variety of A. barteri. It is a short, bushy, attractive plant that is 2 to 6 inches tall. It shares most of the same characteristics as other barteri. This includes the durable leaves that can withstand herbivory from fish.

This is a hardy plant that will do well in a variety of water conditions. Like other barteri, it should be kept in a low light planted tank, and also preferably in current. This is because the large long-lived leaves are prone to algae growth.

If the var. Nana isn’t small enough for you there is even a “petite” version that is even smaller. This “petite” version only grows to a height of about 2 inches tall.

Difficulty: Easy

Ph: 6.0 – 8.0

Temp: 72 – 82° F

Growth Rate: Very Slow

Placement: Foreground or Mid-ground

Size: Small, Up to 6 Inches Tall

Hornwort (Ceratophylum demersum)

Horntwort is an extremely widespread plant found on every continent except Antarctica. It is also considered an invasive pest in some countries. These two facts prove just how easy and quickly this plant grows. Also, due to its fast growth and large size, it isn’t recommended for small tanks.

Hornwort is a multi-stemmed plant that will grow all the way to the top of the water line. In nature, it can grow up to 10 feet long. Bushy in appearance the brittle stems and leaves can break off easily.

Lacking true roots it grows rhizoids to anchor itself to whatever it can. Hornwort will also do just fine floating freely in the water until it can find something to attach to.

What makes hornwort such an easy to grow plant is that it will thrive in a variety of conditions. It will do well with little light like any other low light aquarium plant. It can also thrive in medium to high light conditions.

It also has a high tolerance to a variety of water conditions as well. With a temperature range of 59-86° F, it can be used in cold water or tropical aquariums.

A unique trait of this plant is the fact that it is allelopathic. This means that it produces chemicals that can discourage algae growth.

There are a lot of things to like about Hornwort. If you want a low light  plant that is very easy to grow this may be the one for you!

Difficulty: Very Easy

Ph: 6.0-7.5

Temp: 59 – 86° F

Growth Rate: Fast

Placement: Background

Size: Large

Brazilian pennywort (Hydrocotyle leucocephala)

Brazilian pennywort is known for its vine-like growth habit and round leaves. It can be allowed to grow vertically or trained to creep horizontally. It is a relatively delicate plant. So it shouldn’t be kept with aggressively herbivorous fish like cichlids or goldfish.

As a low light plant Brazilian pennywort will grow moderately fast. So it may need more frequent pruning than other low light plants. With higher levels of light, it can be a very fast grower. If, for instance, we give it plenty of light and nutrients it will grow up to a couple of inches a week. For this reason, it is not recommended for small tanks.

This plant also grows well in a wide range of water parameters. Soft water will lead to slower growth and harder water will allow it to achieve fast lush growth. It can be planted in the substrate or free floated in the water. It is susceptible to iron deficiencies and this can be seen in the yellowing of the leaves.

Like many aquarium plants, it is not purely a submersed aquatic plant. In the correct humid environment, this plant can grow and live outside of the water. Portions of the plant that reach the surface of the water will also occasionally produce little white flowers which are quite nice.

Difficulty: Easy

Ph: 6.0 – 8.0

Temp: 68 – 82° F

Growth Rate: Moderate to Fast

Placement: Mid-ground, Background, or Floating

Size: Up to 24 Inches Tall

Cryptocoryne wendtii

One of the most widely used aquarium plants today Cryptocoryne wendtii has several variations in form and color. Leaf sizes can range from 5-18 inches. Color variations include browns, greens, reds, and multi-colored.

It does well in both low light and high light environments. In low light, C. wendtii will tend to grow longer foliage. While high light will promote a shorter bushier appearance.

It will do well in a variety of water conditions. They are easy to maintain and grow once established but are finicky about changing water conditions. Changes in environment such as being planted in a new tank will cause what people call “crypt rot” or “crypt melt”. It will look as though the plant has died but with a little patience, new leaves will form in time. With this plant stability and consistency are key.

Small varieties can be used as a foreground plant in large tanks. In smaller tanks, it is well suited as a background plant.

Difficulty: Easy to Moderate

Ph: 6.0-8.0

Temp: 72 – 82° F

Growth Rate: Moderate

Placement: Foreground, Mid-ground, Background

Size: 4-6 inches

Giant Hygro (Hygrophila corymbosa)

Hygrophila corymbosa is commonly known as giant hygro or temple plant. This is a fast growing stem plant. This is a large plant and is best suited to medium or large sized aquariums. It has large broad leaves that grow to an average of 3 to 5 inches.

Due to its fast growth H. corymbosa is a great plant for cycling out nitrates and ammonia from your aquarium. This fast growth also means that it will need frequent pruning. If not pruned often it may shade out other adjacent plants in the aquarium. Once the top is pruned it will tend to branch out from there.

If it is allowed to grow up out of the water it often grows small purple flowers. Although if allowed to grow past the water surface it will end up shedding its underwater leaves. When grown in an  aquarium we obviously don’t want this so prune it when it nears the water line. Pruned cuttings can be planted directly into your substrate to grow a new plant.

While this is a great low light plant it also does well in moderate light. Given adequate nutrition and supplemental CO2, it will really take off.

Difficulty: Easy

Ph: 6.3 – 7.5

Temp: 68 – 82° F

Growth Rate: Moderate to Fast

Placement: Midground, Background

Size: Medium, 6 – 16 Inches Tall

Buce (Bucephalandra)

Bucephalandra or commonly known as “Buce” is a relative newcomer on the aquarium plant scene. Like Anubis and Cryptocoryne, Bucephalandra is an aroid. No other group of plants displays the same extravagant and exotic foliage as this family of plants.

There are many different varieties, each with its own color, size and leaf shape. Wavy Green is one of the more popular and affordable examples. This is also one of only a few aquarium plants that can flower underwater.

To plant Buce the rhizomatous root system is best tied to an anchor such as a piece of stone or wood. The rhizome should not be planted in the substrate. Roots will find their own way into the substrate given time.

Like Cryptocoryne, Buce leaves will disintegrate or “melt” with sudden changes in water conditions. Similarly so, they will also recover. They just need to given the chance to stabilize in a consistent environment. Growth is fairly slow and most varieties will stay small. That makes these plants particularly suited to small low light aquariums.

Difficulty: Easy

Ph: 6.0 – 7.5

Temp: 71 – 82° F

Growth Rate: Slow

Placement: Foreground, Midground

Size: Small

Marimo Moss Ball (Aegagropila linnaei)

Marimo moss balls are not actually a moss or a plant at all. They are a rare growth form of filamentous green algae. They can be found in many lakes in the northern hemisphere. Here they naturally form velvet-like green balls. This happens through a process of lake current and wave action that turn and roll the algae.

They are regarded as good luck charms in Japan. They can also live up to an astonishing 200 years old! They are sometimes kept as heirlooms and passed down to children.

Marimo moss care is very easy and straightforward. They can live in a wide variety of water conditions from straight tap water to brackish water. Brown spots may appear on the ball if the water gets too warm. They will also form similar brown spots if they are given too intense light. Thus they are well suited as low light plants.

When you first place your Marimo in the aquarium it may take 1 to 2 days to sink to the bottom. This is normal and is due to trapped air bubbles. It also should not stay in the same position indefinitely. You should flip or rotate it to make sure all sides are getting light.

Size can range all the way from 1 inch to 12 inches in diameter. They grow very slowly and most of the 2 inch balls you will find for sale are 8 to 15 years old.

Difficulty: Easy

Ph: 6.8 – 7.5

Temp: 72 – 82° F

Growth Rate: Very Slow

Placement: Foreground

Size: Small, Typically 2 – 4 Inches in Diameter

Guppy Grass (Najas guadalupensis)

Native to the United States Guppy Grass or Najas guadalupensis is a fast-growing plant. It is known best for providing baby guppies or fry with ample hiding places. In fact, N. guadalupensis will provide great cover for any type of fry or baby fish to include dwarf shrimp.

This is a stem plant that produces lots of small grass like leaflets. You can choose to root it in your substrate or float it freely in your aquarium. If rooted pieces of the plant will easily break off and happily float around the tank continuing to grow. Depending upon your preference you can remove these or let them be.

Fast growing, it is great at removing toxins from the aquarium. While it does well in low light it needs more light to reach its full potential. It will also result in a brighter green color. It will do OK in smaller aquariums but will need frequent maintenance and pruning. If given a large enough tank it can grow up to 35 inches tall.

This plant is moderately difficult to grow. This is due to the frequent maintenance and pruning needed. As well as the slightly narrower water conditions required.

Difficulty: Moderate

Ph: 6.0-7.0

Temp: 72 – 84° F

Growth Rate: Fast

Placement: Background

Size: Large, Up to 35 Inches Tall

Miniature Four Leaf Clover (Marsilea hirsuta)

Marsilea hirsuta or Miniature Four Leaf Clover isn’t actually a clover at all but rather a small fern.

It is native to the marshes and floodplains of Australia. It develops small dark green leaves with one, two, three or four leaves per petiole. The multi-leaved petioles primarily form immersed above the water. Submersed under the water there will typically only be single leaves.

M. hirsuta grows by spreading out runners along the substrate. With ample light, it will form a dense carpet-like growth pattern. In a low light tank, it will tend to grow taller and more spread out leaves with less of a carpet appearance.

Most specimens you buy will have been grown immersed above the water. Once planted in your aquarium there will be a transition process. During this process, the original leaves will melt and die in a few days. These dead leaves should be regularly pruned off. With a little patience new submersed or underwater leaves will soon grow.

This is an easy plant to grow due to the fact that it does well in a wide variety of water conditions. It works as a low light plant but also does great in a high light.

Difficulty: Easy

Ph: 6.0 – 7.5

Temp: 68 – 84° F

Growth Rate: Slow to Medium

Placement: Foreground, Midground

Size: Small, 2 to 7 Inches Tall

What’s the Best Low Light Aquarium Plant for Your Tank?

As you have seen there are many aquarium plants to choose from even if you can’t afford an expensive lighting set up. All these plants will do well in a low light scenario. Rather than choosing just one variety why not try a few? Fill out your planted tank with plants in the foreground, midground, and the background. 

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