When it comes to our planted freshwater aquaria, lighting can often be a killer. Still, if you’re not going to set up a massively expensive T5 fixture, you’re not out of luck. It’s entirely possible to create a beautiful aquascape with lower lighting. Here are 8 of my favorite low light aquarium plants, check them out, and then look below for some tips designed just for aquaria with lower lighting.
1. Amazon Sword
The Amazon Sword is a perennial favorite in planted aquaria. Most of the plants in the genus Echinodorous do well in low-light situations, but Amazon Sword flourishes.
The natural environment of the Amazon Sword tends to support its use in low-light situations. South American rivers contain many blackwater environments. These low pH, tannin-rich waters are naturally dark due to high levels of tannins in the water.
The Amazon Sword is hardy, easy to take care of, and remarkably common in regular fish stores. You can even find them in big box stores like Petsmart.
All they need is the occasional pruning. Like most Swords, the Amazon Sword will begin to “melt” when the plant is done with the leaves. Since it grows as a rosette, you’ll want to keep an eye on the larger leaves that form around the bottom and trim them as soon as they begin to decay.
Do all of that, and you’ll find yourself with a happy green sword. Amazon Sword will even reproduce in low-light conditions if nutrients are right. The runners can be removed without consequence and replanted. Or you can remove from the tank to maintain the plant as a unique centerpiece in smaller tanks.
Anacharis isn’t going to win any prizes for originality in a tank. It’s a common weed, and some varieties are so hard to kill they’ve become an invasive species. The fact that it’s well-suited to aquariums without high lighting is just a bonus for the beginner.
Anacharis grows at an extreme rate in high lighting with CO2. It’s still a quick grower in lower lighting tanks but not overwhelming. The leaves will be less dense than you see in some high-tech tanks that choose to use it, but it maintains good density even at 1 watt per gallon.
It’s also versatile. In addition to being a decent floating plant, it can also be anchored to the bottom of the tank using the substrate. This makes it one of the best options for a stemmed look in a low-lit tank, especially if you’re looking for dense greenery.
Just be responsible with it as you’ll be cutting lots of it out. It’s advisable to dry out any removed stems or cutting before throwing them in the trash to prevent their spread.
All Anubias sp. do well in low-light aquaria. These slow-growing plants are hardy and often grow in darker areas in the natural world. This makes them an ideal candidate for anyone running a tank with lower lighting.
While Anubias nana and Anubias barteri are the usuals, you can find others. Since they’ll all grow under low-lighting, you can actually create a varied aquascape just using this genus of plants. That is if you’re willing to wait the two-to-three months for them to fill in.
My personal favorite of the more unusual Anubias sp. is Anubias hastifolia. It has long stems and arrowhead-shaped leaves that reach higher than most other available species. They’re a bit more challenging to find but can pay off well in the end.
All of these plants should be tied to a rock or driftwood. They’ll form roots in time to hold them to the decoration. Planting them in the substrate is nearly impossible without weights. You’ll need to keep the rhizome above the surface for the best results.
Keep an eye on older leaves. They tend to accumulate algae due to their longevity, and Anubias will do best with algae eaters in the tank. Try cherry shrimp and Oto catfish for the best results, but the latter should only be added to a fully cycled tank.
4. Dwarf Sagittaria
Sagittaria subulata is most commonly known as a carpet plant in high-lighting tanks. There it achieves rapid, compact growth once established and has to be regularly trimmed. The end effect is similar to grass.
You’re not going to be able to achieve that kind of growth in a low-light tank, but the effect is still impressive. The light green color also makes for a good contrast with the darker green plants that are most often used in low-light environments.
The runners for the plant will tend to spread farther when contained in low-light aquariums. This leads to a more sparse and jungle-type feel. Use it accordingly, and this specimen will quickly become a favored addition to your tank.
Root tabs are a must for this species. Add them once every couple of months for a tank with low wattage lighting, and you’ll see remarkable growth.
Please note this species does take more care than most low-light plants. I wouldn’t recommend it for a true beginner. Just put in the research, and you have another option for aquascaping in your tank.
5. Sunset Hygrophila
Sunset Hygrophila is another species that adapts to a wide variety of conditions. In this case… pretty much everything, although it may quickly lose the red and gold color in a low-light tank.
There’s a slight catch: it’s illegal to transfer between states. It’s technically on the “Noxious Weed” list because of its adaptability. Still, adoption of the list is voluntary, and not everyone abides by it. Fortunately, in this case, it all falls on the seller if the government chooses to interfere.
That said, it’s a beautiful, fast-growing plant. The “Sunset” variety has a ton of color but also requires a lot of maintenance in high-tech planted aquaria. In low-light tanks, it’s best described as “quick.”
At the time of this writing, it’s still readily available and being cultivated in aquatic nurseries. It’s one of the few stem plants that will truly flourish in a low-light tank, rather than just surviving. It’s worth a shot if it can be found, but purchases should be made in-state.
European fishkeepers, on the other hand, have nothing to worry about. If you’re up for something a bit different, then give it a shot, even in low-tech tanks it will grow into a sizable shrub in no time.
6. Vallisneria Gigantea
Vallisneria all do well in a low-light tank, but Gigantiea is unique in that it’s much larger. The larger leaves can create a beautiful, flowing effect in your aquascaping. It can also be kept short for your fish to enjoy densely packed leaves to hide in.
This plant will grow exceptionally well in low-light conditions as long as root tabs are provided. The runners will propagate quickly and allow you to create an excellent background despite the lower light. Just separate them and keep them a few inches apart in the substrate.
You can also allow the leaves to run across the surface once reached. This isn’t advisable if you have other plants in the tank, but it can help with slow-growing plants prone to algae growth like Anubias sp.
Gigantea is really only suitable for tanks that are over 20 gallons in size. It’s a large plant but the best option for dense cover in a large tank with lower lighting. I’d recommend using it from the beginning and slowly phasing it out as slower growing plants fill in if you’re not a big fan of the eelgrass look.
Keep in mind that the exact identification of Vallisneria species is hard. Learn the taxonomy of the various species if you want to be sure that you have exactly the right plant.
7. Water Sprite
Water sprite is an excellent plant that can be trimmed into a proper underwater shrub for those who stay on top of it. Lighting isn’t an issue here. It grows quickly in all but the darkest conditions.
The lacey effect is rather unique among aquatic plants, even those which require higher lighting. It can also be left free-floating or planted in the substrate, depending on your aquascape. I prefer planting it in the substrate, simply keep the crown uncovered, and it will grow fine.
The leaf structure varies depending on the plant. Some will be thicker while others can grow as thinly as plants like Hornwort. Water Sprite will grow anywhere, but the pattern it grows in is dependent on the conditions in the tank.
Water Sprite thrives in low light. It’s another filler plant that makes an excellent way to decorate the fore-and-mid ground of a tank with less lighting. It can even grow well in the shade of Vallisneria sp. if you’d prefer a more delicate look.
8. Water Wisteria
Water Wisteria is actually a member of the genus Hygrophila and makes a thriving low light aquatic plant. Like most of those on this list, it’s a great beginner plant, although some care will have to be taken in its placement.
While it does well in low-light conditions, you’ll want at least 1 watt per gallon over it. Keep it out of the shade; otherwise, it has a tendency to grow anemically. It will grow quickly still, but it can become rather unsightly.
As long as you have full light on it? It thrives. Those using it may not need any other background plants, and propagation is as easy as snipping a plant and replanting the cutting. In larger tanks, you can allow it to float until it gains roots and then plant it as well.
Water Wisteria is common, easy-to-grow, and will thrive with wise placement. It may be a beginner plant, but the unique look adds a dash of texture to the back of an aquascape that’s hard to overlook.
Aquascaping With Low Lighting
Aquascaping with low lighting is a bit different. Your plant choice is limited, and many plants grow differently when exposed to less light.
While a “sea-of-green” works for some people, you can do much more than you’d think at first glance. Keep the following points in mind for the best end results:
- Foreground and Background Plants: In low light aquaria, it’s often easiest to skip foreground plants and leave the substrate bare. True “cover” isn’t really possible without high-lighting, and it adds a convenient place to feed frozen foods.
- Use Dark Substrates: Darker substrates are a must. They add vital contrast to the tank since your choice of colors is limited due to dimmer lighting. Go dark brown or black instead of a lighter color, and your plants will pop.
- Vary Textures: While you’re not able to grow red or yellow plants in a low-light tank, you can use various textures. Water Sprite, Anubias varieties, and Vallisneria can all provide a surprising amount of texture. That leaves you with a much better backdrop than “just green.”
- Consider Going Dutch: Dutch-style tanks are better for formal arrangements in low lighting. You can raise the substrate gradually to the back and create rows of different plants. Use Anubias or Dwarf Saggitaria for the foreground, and you’re all set. Japanese-style tanks are much harder to produce without more lighting.
- Use Rock and Wood: Rocks and driftwood are a must to break up the sea of green that occurs in a low-light tank. Rocks with a darker coloration are great. Driftwood can also be used to shore up portions of the substrate and provide a visual break for a more dramatic aquascape.
- Keep Algae Eaters Handy: Dwarf shrimp and Oto catfish are a must. They can keep slow-growing plants clean of algae and excessive amounts of biofilm. Low light tanks are much more prone to brown algae outbreaks, so choose your livestock carefully.
It’s true that a low-light aquarium isn’t going to be as dramatic visually as most high-tech aquaria. That said, if you keep the above in mind, you can still create a beautiful tank without expending too much on light fixtures.
Dimmer tanks are just different, not inferior. Don’t make the mistake of mimicking tanks with much higher lighting. Account for the differences in plant choice, and you’ll be in good hands.
As always, do your due diligence with research, and things will turn out fine.
Low Lighting Planted Aquaria FAQ
What’s Considered Low Lighting for a Planted Aquarium?
Low lighting for a tank ranges from .5-1 watt per gallon for the most part. Some people will call anything under 2 watts per gallon “low-lighting,” but I chose the plants using the former in this case.
Does Low Lighting Mean Low-Tech?
Not necessarily. Low-tech tanks often use minimal filtration and a different substrate than usual. If you’re still running standard filters and using a nutrient-filled substrate like Flourite, then you’re not quite a low-tech tank.
What’s the Main Difference in a Low Light Tank?
Tanks with low lighting grow much slower and use less CO2 than required in most planted tanks. Running a CO2 generator can actually be hazardous for gilled fish since it displaces oxygen content in the water without replacing as much of it.
How Much CO2 Can I Run in a Low-Light Tank?
Tanks with low lighting grow much slower and use less CO2 than required in most planted tanks. Running a CO2 generator can actually be hazardous for gilled fish since it displaces oxygen content in the water.
Are There Any Colored Plants That Grow in Low Light Conditions?
Many plants will grow; it’s whether or not they’ll maintain their red or bronze coloration that’s in question. The chemicals which create the pigments are less efficient than chlorophyll at taking in light so the plants will often turn green. Those which don’t may die over time, or simply exhibit unsightly growth patterns.
How Do I Know if a Plant Isn’t Doing Well in a Low Light Planted Aquarium?
Watch the growth patterns. Plants that are light-starved will tend to stretch in between their growth nodes. If you have a Ludwigia sp. that looks sparse, for instance, and is stretching over an inch between leaf clusters… it’s not doing well. Plants won’t achieve the tight growth you see in high-tech tanks, but good low light plants will remain full-looking.
Should I Fertilize My Low Light Planted Tank?
I prefer slower methods of fertilization for low-light tanks. Root tabs are an excellent choice for larger plants. Using products like Excel Flourish can be dicey, go with about half of what’s recommended for your tank size on the bottle with any liquid fertilizer. Too much water fertilizer can cause a nitrate spike.
Thrive With Less Light
The key to running a successful aquarium with lower lighting is a wise plant choice. As long as you’re thinking ahead, you can create a successful and beautiful tank. Finding the best low light aquarium plants can be a chore. Still, there’s far more variety available than most people think.