Most aquarium fish prefer a planted environment, and all plants need light to grow. But what do you do for fish that need low light intensity?
Luckily, there are many plants that are able to grow in dimly lit tanks. These low light aquarium plants make excellent furnishings for fish that would rather stay out of the light.
Low light plants are often easier and cheaper to maintain than species that need a lot of expensive tech to grow.
Are you looking to add some greenery to a low tech tank? Here is a list of over 25 of the very best low light plants…
Table of Contents
What Makes A Good Low Light Plant?
There are several things to take into consideration before selecting plants for low light aquariums.
Most do not look their best in low light. In many cases, a lack of light leads to brittle leaves and discoloration. Poor lighting can also cause them to die off quickly, or fail to grow in at all.
Plants that are adapted to low light are usually equipped with special adaptations for surviving harsh conditions. They may come from habitats where the light is very fleeting. Many live at the bottom of murky swamps, streams, and lakes.
Several of these species are opportunistic. They thrive in areas that have been disturbed or rendered unsuitable for other vegetation growth.
A species is considered a ‘low light’ plant if it can continue to grow in a light intensity that is less than 3 watts per gallon. Vegetation that grows in this intensity are among the best and hardiest.
Some can survive in any light, but will grow differently depending on light intensity received.
Plants that look taller or brighter in moderate to high light intensity may remain close by the substrate in low light. They might also look darker or lighter in color, and have thin and willowy leaves.
For other species, it is the opposite!
Cryptocorynes, for example, actually look their best and brightest in low light.
In a low light environment, your aquarium plants may need more fertilizer than they would need at a higher light intensity. You might need to enrich your substrate with extra iron or CO2 to compensate for the lack of light and decreased photosynthesis. However, this is not necessary for all species.
Low Light Aquarium Plants For Beginners
1. Java Fern
Many of our favorite freshwater fish come from the Indonesian islands. So of course, one of our best low light aquarium plants comes from there too!
The Java Fern is an attractive and extremely easy to manage fern that can grow in even the murkiest of environments. For best growth, keep the light intensity between 1.5 and 3 watts per gallon for about six hours per day.
Java Ferns are tough enough to withstand a bit of grazing from greenery-loving fish and invertebrates. They are also well adapted to acidic water. It is very commonly used to furnish tanks full of Tetras and Chili Rasboras. The wide, leafy plant provides plenty of security for these secretive little fish.
These ferns have rhizomes, rather than a true root system. To plant them, you must anchor the rhizomes to a surface rather than burying them in the substrate. You can use fishing wire to keep them anchored until it has firmly taken hold.
The Java Fern grows so slowly that it only needs to be pruned every six months. It is truly the perfect choice for a first aquascape.
2. American Waterweed
The Anacharis is a beautiful floating plant, but it needs a high light intensity to grow. The American Waterweed is a great low light alternative. It also easily attracts algae, providing food for your algae eaters.
This floating plant can be grown in light levels of two watts per gallon for at least six hours a day. Any light intensity will do, but low light promotes slow growth and allows beginners to manage it easily.
Simply plant the roots in the substrate or float them along the surface of the water. When you trim it back, you use the cuttings to grow new Waterweeds.
Duckweed is one of the most popular floating plants, it gives an authentic look to aquariums and garden ponds.
You can grow Duckweed just about anywhere, but the best way to plant it is to float it along the surface of the water.
Duckweed is very fast growing, so you should keep the light low to encourage slow growth.
There is no specific light intensity required to grow Duckweed, but it should be exposed to natural sunlight for at least eight hours a day. It is better to rely on natural light rather than artificial lighting.
4. Dwarf Hygro
The Dwarf Hygro (Hygrophila polysperma) is the most beginner friendly Hygrophila. Its small size makes it easy to care for, prune, and propagate.
Dwarf Hygro is green to reddish brown in color, but the color depends on the light intensity. At low light, you are likely to see a brown or red colored Hygro. Three watts per gallon is the lowest possible light intensity, with exposure for 10 to 12 hours a day.
This plant will grow to about 24 inches, but should be cut down to under 10 inches in order to look its best. It will also look its best in the center of the tank.
The leaves will grow to a width of about three inches, you can use the offshoots to grow more.
Dwarf Hygro is not only beautiful, but useful too! It acts as a natural buffer for CO2, preserving the water quality and keeping algae from growing out of control.
5. Amazon Sword Plant
The Amazon Sword’s large blade shaped leaves are easily spotted in aquariums. It looks its best when placed in the center or the foreground of the tank. This large, leafy plant works great for South American and African Cichlid setups.
Amazon Swords should be planted in large grained substrate at least two inches thick. A low tech tank is the best setup, since it will grow more slowly and need less maintenance.
Regardless of setup, Amazon Swords need a pristine environment where the water is changed at least twice every month, and no turbidity from internal filters.
While you may only need a maximum of two watts per gallon of light, you will need to expose it to light for at least 10 hours every day.
At about $5 a plant, it is also very affordable and is resilient enough to tolerate temperatures all the way down to 60°F.
Low Light Foreground Plants
When decorating a low light aquarium, Cryptocorynes are often the aquascaper’s first choice! This aquarium plant makes an excellent shelter for bottom dwelling nano fish, loaches, and shrimp.
It comes in various shapes and sizes, so you are sure to find one that fits into your aquarium design. However, low light brings their brightness front and center. Their blade shaped leaves come in green, yellow, red, brown, and even shades of orange!
The care of your specific Crypt depends on which variety you get, but there are a few general rules to follow for all species: All Cryptocorynes should be:
- Planted in fine gravel substrate.
- Spaced apart so each one has room to grow.
- Tank temperature should be between 72 and 84°F.
- Dim light and no direct sunlight.
Most Crypts need about two watts per gallon for 11 to 12 hours a day.
2. Congo Fern
The Congo Fern, or African Water Fern, is a low light alternative to the Water Wisteria. It is a good choice for furnishing an African Cichlid tank and is easy to anchor to rock, driftwood, or large grained substrate.
Congo Ferns need about three watts of light per gallon. Extra CO2 is required if growing in intensities below five watts and they must be exposed to light for 8 to 10 hours a day.
This species is large and very hardy, standing up to rambunctious behavior and leaf nibbling.
Anubias is the perfect choice for paludariums. This wide, leafy jungle plant is used to growing in dim conditions. It needs as little as 1.8 watts of light per gallon for eight hours a day, any more can encourage algae overgrowth.
You can plant Anubias in soft, muddy substrate or anchor it to rocks and logs with fishing wire.
The plant will take hold and continue to grow on its own. It usually propagates itself by dropping offshoots into the soil.
Snails love munching on its wide green leaves, and it can handle a bit of grazing from a few hungry snails or shrimp.
4. Dwarf Rotala
Have you seen a Dwarf Rotala in the wild? These misty purple flowers, commonly found in lakes and ponds, have more to them than meets the eye.
Even though it is called the ‘Dwarf’ Rotala, it is not a small plant! At its maximum growth, it will reach about 20 inches.
Simply plant the roots in the substrate and shape it to your liking. As it grows, it will drop old shoots that will grow into new plants.
Aim for a light intensity of 3 to 5 watts per gallon and at least 11 hours of light exposure per day from a full spectrum lightbulb.
5. Lemon Bacopa
The Lemon Bacopa, or Blue Water Hyssop, smells like lemon when you crush it in your fingers! This excellent pond species can also grow in the foreground or center of a low light aquarium.
Unfortunately, it only produces flowers in an outdoor setup. In an outdoor environment, it sprouts little blue flowers from May to September.
Lemon Bacopa grows in orderly green ‘pillars’ that can be cut and shaped however you like. It grows slowly, but can reach a 17 inch maximum.
The plant stays green at low light and turns pink or yellow in higher intensities. It needs at least two hours of direct sunlight exposure per day, and up to two watts per gallon if growing in a tank.
Low Light Carpet Plants
1. Java Moss
One of the most famous mosses in the hobby is also one of the easiest to care for! The Java Moss is an excellent carpet plant for all skill levels. The lower the light is, the better it will grow.
Any plant with a tank temperature over 60°F can host a few mats of Java Moss.
To plant, tie the tiny rhizoids down with fishing wire and wait for them to take hold. The moss will grow in the shape of whichever surface you have chosen to anchor it to. It is versatile enough to be shaped into almost any formation:
- For slow growth, aim for about two watts per gallon of light, for four to six hours a day.
- For quicker growth, increase the intensity to about three watts, and increase exposure to at least eight hours.
2. Staurogyne Repens
Staurogyne repens makes one of the most extravagant carpets that you can have. It stays close to the bottom, only growing up to about four inches tall.
No matter how light or dark your aquarium is, its star shaped leaves will draw all of the attention to the bottom of the tank.
Snails, shrimp, and other bottom dwellers will appreciate the shelter that it offers. It also acts as a natural buffer for CO2 and nitrogen, which improves your water quality.
Staurogyne should be raised under a light intensity of about two watts per liter, for six hours a day.
Pellia is often sold as ‘Pellia moss.’ However, it is actually a type of liverwort. Pellia grows full and fluffy like a moss, so it can be used for carpeting. It is both terrestrial and aquatic, and can be grown in fresh or saltwater tanks.
It can also be grown over rocks and create a ‘moss ball’ for your critters to settle on.
Unlike true mosses, which are propagated by root hairs, Pellia releases spores that scatter and settle around the tank.
4. Peacock Moss
This shiny blue carpet moss looks like a cluster of peacock feathers!
It needs at least 50 percent shade to grow, so should be placed at the bases of wide leaved plants. The moss must be in the shade for at least half of the day, and requires about two watts of light per gallon the rest of the time.
Peacock Moss accents other plants by creating an iridescent blue thicket at their base. Shrimp, snails, and other bottom dwellers will settle right in.
It can be grown in largely the same way as Java Moss, including anchored to rocks and logs. You should enrich the substrate with peat moss before you plant it.
5. Micro Sword
This underwater grass offers a comfortable place for Kuhli Loaches and other secretive bottom dwellers. It makes a good carpet for biotopes as well as breeding and nursery tanks. The plants will grow close to one another and remain a few inches from the substrate.
For the best results, you should enrich your substrate with CO2 or a liquid fertilizer.
The Micro Sword requires a higher intensity than most low light plants. It will need about three watts of light per gallon, for 8 to 12 hours a day.
Micro Swords are very fragile, so they are not the best carpet for a first time aquascaper. The roots can fall apart easily in your hand.
6. Pygmy Chain Sword
The Pygmy Chain Sword is both a carpet and a mini version of the Amazon Sword. A single cutting can be used as a foreground piece in a small tank. When grown in bunches, it resembles an underwater grassland just like the Micro Sword.
Pygmy Chains are usually sold in bunches that can create a carpet when grown together. It propagates naturally as runners are split off from the parent
If you want to grow this plant in a low light tank, you will need to put in a little more work and use a bit of extra fertilizer. You should use about two to three watts per gallon, and keep it exposed to light for 12 hours every day.
Cold Water Low Light Plants
Frogbit is a floating plant that grows naturally in outdoor ponds and rivers. This opportunistic Amazon River native has made its way into many other parts of the world. It works well with White Clouds, Goldfish, and Dojo Loaches.
A little bit of Frogbit goes a long way!
When left to its own devices, Frogbit forms thick mats that can clog filter intakes. It grows very rapidly with or without your help, so it must be carefully maintained to keep it from growing out of control. Collect any excess growth with a net, which you can use for compost or place in another tank or pond.
The stems are too delicate to safely plant in the substrate, so it must be floated along the surface and kept out of direct sunlight.
Frogbit grows best in at least two watts per gallon, and 8 to 10 hours of exposure to artificial light.
Liverworts grow in damp, shady environments all year round. These tiny, rootless plants look like fungi or lichens. They dry out very quickly when exposed to light, so prefer low light environments with very moist substrate.
A chain of Liverworts will form a productive ‘carpet’ that your critters can eat and shelter in.
The best conditions for growing Liverworts include low light, moist substrate, and a temperature of 60°F or higher. It helps to add a bit of wet peat moss to the substrate.
Most Liverworts must be shaded for half of the day, and exposed to only two watts of light per gallon.
You can grow them by anchoring their rhizoids to any surface. They reproduce by dispersing spores, which are spread by wind or water.
3. Marimo Moss
Marimo ‘Moss’ is a type of bright green algae that grows in a ball. Some enthusiasts will dedicate entire tanks to Marimo Moss alone! It is one of the most fun aquarium plants to grow, and makes a great addition to a child’s first fish tank.
Marimo balls provide a supplemental food source for algae eaters, especially if your tank is low on natural algae.
They grow in most conditions and water temperatures, but do require a very clean tank. They can grow in natural or artificial light, so long as it is at least two watts per gallon for six to eight hours a day.
The balls themselves must also be washed and wrung out from time to time. You can break off small pieces to grow new ones.
Marimo Moss is popular for Betta Fish and White Cloud Mountain Minnows.
4. Najas Grass
Najas Grass, or ‘Guppy Grass,’ is not only beloved by Guppies, bottom dwellers like Catfish will move right in. Since it can survive in temperatures as low as 60°F, it is a good carpet for a Goldfish tank too.
This beginner friendly carpet can be grown in both temperate and tropical tanks.
It is planted just like most other carpets, by anchoring the rhizomes to your desired surface. Three watts per gallon is the lowest possible light intensity for growth, but you should aim for at least four. Your grass will need 8 to 12 hours of light exposure every day.
In lower light intensities, it grows in a dark green color.
Vallisneria, or Tapegrass, is also known as Freshwater Eelgrass. You have probably seen it trailing beneath the surface of a lake or stream. Fish that come from temperate lakes and rivers will appreciate this little bit of home in their aquarium.
Growing at about five inches a week, it will reach the middle and upper levels of the tank very quickly. Tapegrass will not stop growing when it reaches the surface of the tank, so it must be pruned regularly to prevent overgrowth.
Tapegrass grows in as little as two watts of light per gallon, but needs 10 to 12 hours of daily light exposure.
Growing Tapegrass in a low tech tank is the best option for first timers. Enrich a fine grained substrate with liquid fertilizer for the best results, but do not add CO2 in a low tech setup.
No-CO2 Low Light Plants
1. Brazilian Pennywort
The Brazilian Pennywort is native to the freshwater habitats of Argentina. It forms thickets or forests in the background of the tank.
Low light can make its rapid growth a little easier to manage. Adding extra CO2 can encourage overgrowth, so it is better to avoid doing so.
If planted in the substrate in a low tech tank, it can reach the surface levels in about two or three months. For a low tech tank, the intensity should be two to three watts per gallon, with up to 10 hours of exposure every day.
2. Giant Hygro
The Giant Hygro, or Temple Plant, is one of the fastest growing low light plants you can get.
In spite of its name, it only grows to about 20 inches. But it grows so quickly that adding fertilizer is a lot more trouble than it is worth! Without regular pruning, it will grow up and out of the tank in just a little over a month. Trim the top leaves by their base once it starts to get too tall.
Shedding or decaying leaves can foul your water quality, so remove these as soon as you notice them.
Giant Hygro should be planted in the foreground or the center in order to draw attention to its massive leaves. No matter the light intensity, it is impossible to miss.
For a beautiful accent, try placing Giant Hygros and Dwarf Hygros in the same tank.
Hornwort is one of the best and most beginner friendly floating plants. It is much easier to care for than Waterweeds, Hydrilla, and many other quick growing floaters. This Hornwort should not be confused with a bryophyte Hornwort.
This species is very hardy and can survive a variety of tank conditions, including temperatures all the way down to 60°F. Its ideal light intensity is about two watts per gallon, for about eight hours a day.
Anchor its roots in muddy substrate or float along the surface of the water, and it will continue to grow wherever the light hits it.
By the end of the month, you will have a 20 inch aquarium plant! Excess growth can be managed by trimming or netting.
This is one plant for which low light is the only real option. The higher the light intensity, the more likely it will take over the tank. It grows at a rate of an inch a day, so it is not the right choice for anyone that cannot spend a lot of time trimming and pruning.
When managed, it provides an authentic look for a freshwater biotope.
An intensity less than three watts per gallon is the safest way to grow this species, with exposure to light for only up to six hours a day.
Optimal growth conditions include a temperature from 61 to 80°F, and slightly acidic conditions. Do not add fertilizer or place the plant in direct light.
There are several things to be aware of before you raise Hydrilla for an aquarium:
- Many states have placed restrictions on its use, due to its highly invasive nature.
- Check your local regulations before you purchase this species.
- You should never raise Hydrilla in an outdoor setting, or it will spread into the local ecosystem.
Moneywort, or ‘Creeping Jenny,’ works for aquariums the way that ornamental vines work on land. When grown over rocks and ledges, it creates a beautiful ‘cascade’ effect. When planted in the substrate, it climbs the aquarium glass like English ivy.
For quick growth, try enriching your substrate with iron. For slower growth, no fertilizers are needed.
Run a light intensity of about two watts per gallon, and keep the plant exposed to light for eight hours.
The vines will become tangled up with one another if you do not trim and shape them regularly. It is a great low light plant for aquascaping, but can be difficult for beginners and amateur hobbyists.
6. Redroot Floater
If Duckweed and Frogbit grows too quickly for comfort, the Redroot Floater is an excellent slower growing alternative.
The Redroot is a floating plant for ponds and pond themed tanks. It looks great in aquariums, paludariums, and outdoor settings. It is popular to float in Goldfish tanks, but be aware that the Goldfish will take a few bites out of them.
Redroot does not need CO2, but does need iron for its best colors. Its leaves are either green or slightly yellow, depending on how much iron it gets.
Three watts per gallon is the best light intensity for growth, and the plant should have access to light for about eight hours a day.
How To Pick The Best Plant?
|Amazon Sword Plant||Yes||$5 to $10|
|American Waterweed||Yes||$1 to $4|
|Anubias||Yes||$8 to $30|
|Brazilian Pennywort||No||$7 to $15|
|Congo Fern||Yes||$20 to $30|
|Cryptocoryne||Varies||$10 to $16|
|Duckweed||Yes||$3 to $10|
|Dwarf Hygro||Yes||$3 to $5|
|Dwarf Rotala||Yes||$4 to $8|
|Frogbit||Yes||$5 to $15|
|Giant Hygro||No||$6 to $20|
|Hornwort||Yes||$5 to $10|
|Java Fern||Yes||$10 to $15|
|Java Moss||Yes||$10 to $25|
|Lemon Bacopa||Yes||$8 to $30|
|Marimo Moss||Yes||$20 to $30|
|Micro Sword||Yes||$8 to $20|
|Moneywort||No||$10 to $40|
|Najas Grass||Yes||$15 to $35|
|Peacock Moss||Yes||$7 to $25|
|Pellia||Yes||$10 to $15|
|Pygmy Chain Sword||No||$7 to $10|
|Redroot Floater||Yes||$7 to $20|
|Staurogyne Repens||No||$5 to $20|
|Tapegrass||No||$10 to $15|
So how do you know which low light plant is best for your aquarium?
There are several things for you to take into account.
Not every plant works for every skill level. If this is your first time designing a planted tank, consider low maintenance species like the Java Fern and the Amazon Sword.
Another thing to consider is exactly how much light you are planning to use, and you will be exposing the plants to direct sunlight (i.e. are you running an indoor or outdoor setup)?
Some plants grow their best in natural sunlight (e.g. Lemon Bacopa), while others need artificial light (e.g. Hydrilla) to keep them at a reasonable size.
Finally, you must consider the level of care that you are willing to put into your aquascape.
If you do not have a lot of time to trim, stick with slower growing species like Java Fern or American Waterweed.
Which plant have you had the most success in growing in a low light tank?