10 Easy Plants For African Cichlid Aquariums

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10 Easy Plants for African Cichlid Aquariums

The stereotypical aquarium for African Cichlids is usually characterized by a barren appearance with sand, rockwork and possibly fake decorations. 1) Many omnivorous and herbivorous Cichlids, like the mbunas, love to eat plants and 2) many of them enjoy digging to create spawning areas which inadvertently causes plants to be uprooted. Aquarium Co-Op is all about aquarium plants. We love their natural beauty and ability absorb nitrogen waste. This can cause aggression in African cichlid tank that have been deliberately overcrowded. We have spent many years researching and testing the best “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. Aside from being quick growers, aquatic plants can also absorb large quantities of nitrates, phosphate and other nutrients, helping to purify 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 at the water surface

Hornwort (Ceratophyllum demersum) is a floating plant we’ve had great success with our mbunas – the most notorious plant eaters among African cichlids. They look fluffy but their pine needle-like leaves are very tough 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.) This stem plant can also be grown by floating the plant 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. It is illegal in certain areas, including Washington and California.

Plants for Epiphyte

An epiphyte, another type of plant, doesn’t need a substrate. It is attached to rocks, driftwood, and decorations to keep them from being knocked about too often. 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. The rhizome, also known as the horizontal stem, is a common feature in epiphyte plants. If you don’t want to cover it with glue or bury it in substrate, it could begin to deteriorate.

Anubias are very common because they are easy to grow, are low-light friendly and come in many sizes and shapes. We prefer to recommend larger species such as Anubias cafefolia, Anubias barteri and Anubias nuangi. Their thick, sturdy leaves and robust rhizomes can withstand more abuse.

Anubias inside an Easy Planter decoration

Javaferns have a similar appearance to anubias, due to their low light requirements, easy care and sturdy leaves. There are three main types: regular java, windelov (or laces) java, and narrow-leaf java. They are easy to propagate by either (1) splitting the rhizome into two halves or (2) cutting off a leaf and letting little plantlets sprout from the black dots on the leaf’s underside.

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. It is also known as the African waterfern. It thrives in high-GH and pH waters that African cichlids prefer. Most epiphyte plants are slow growers compared to floating plants, but given enough time, bolbitis can develop into an impressive bush that would dominate even a medium-sized tank.

Java moss (Taxiphyllum barbieri) is a slow-growing but hardy moss that looks beautiful when attached to rocks and driftwood. Some are already attached to wire mesh and can be used for making a fuzzy carpet. 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 of vallisneria

Vallisneria, one of few plants that can be grown in the wild at Lake Tanganyika, is able to tolerate higher pH and GH. Many varieties are available for sale in the hobby, including Vallisneria spiralis and its bigger cousin Vallisneria americana. This grass-like plant can grow very tall and block line of sight, which helps to reduce aggression. Plus, it proliferates quite rapidly and can transform your fish tank into an underwater jungle for your fish to weave in and out of. For extra protection, we like to leave the vallisneria inside their original plastic pots with a few root tabs. Add some Easy Green all in one fertilizer to the water. The original plant will begin to send out runners, which then spread across the substrate in 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 calamistratum, known as the African onion plant, is a slow-growing bulb plant that enjoys hard, alkaline water. Because of its tough, crinkly foliage that can reach up to 4 feet (1.2m), it makes a great centerpiece for larger aquariums. Place the bulb on top, then cover it with rocks or put it in the Easy Planter. This will prevent it from becoming rooted. The leaves may melt at first because the crinum is not accustomed to your water conditions. The bulb will grow long, ruffled tendrils if it is kept in a low-to-medium light environment.

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. They can be easily rooted if they have established roots 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. The Easy Planter is not the best option. We recommend a barrier of rockswork or decorations that can be easily removed as the plant grows.

Emergent Plants

If your cichlids seem determined to eat all the vegetation available, your best option is to create emersed plants in your tank.


(Epipremnum aureum),

lucky bamboo

(Dracaena sanderiana), and


We have grown all the plants with their leaves above water and their roots below 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

Although none of these plants are guaranteed to be cichlid-proof, we do hope at least some of them will work in African cichlid tanks. 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.