10 Easy Plants For African Cichlid Aquariums

10 Easy Plants for African Cichlid Aquariums

If you look at the typical aquarium for African cichlids it will often have a rather barren appearance. It may consist of sand and rockwork as well as 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. At Aquarium Co-Op, we’re all about aquarium plants because of their natural beauty and ability to absorb nitrogen waste, which constantly builds up in African cichlid tanks that are purposely overcrowded to reduce aggression. We have spent many years researching and testing the best “cichlid-proof” plants. Find out the top 10 plants that have survived the test of time and are compatible 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. Although they look soft, their pine needle-like leaves can be quite tough and have a slight serrated edge. Hornwort is fast-growing and can be eaten by some African cichlids. The main thing to note is that if they run out of nutrients in the aquarium, this plant has the bad habit of shedding its fine needles, which can be a mess to clean up. See our complete care guide for more information on Hornwort.

Cabomba (Cabomba spp.) It is a stem-plant that can be grown by floating it on 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. It can grow quickly if it is exposed to high levels of light. It is illegal in certain areas, including Washington and California.

Plants for Epiphyte

An epiphyte is another type of plant that does not need any substrate to grow and is often attached to rock, driftwood, or decorations to prevent them from being knocked around too much. You can fasten them to objects using fishing line, sewing thread, or even super glue gel. You can attach your epiphyte to a basket by placing a root tab in the rock wool. Then, slip the basket into 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 very popular because they are beginner friendly, enjoy low light, and come in a wide assortment of shapes and sizes. 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

Java Ferns look similar to anubias due to their ease of care, low light requirements and long-lasting leaves. The most popular varieties are the regular Java fern, Windelov (or “lace”) java-fern, and the 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, also known as Bolbitis heudelotii, is a beautiful epiphyte that has textured, vividly green leaves. It can grow to large size and be used as a background plant. Also known as the African water fern, it does well in waters with high pH and GH that African cichlids usually 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 moos (Taxiphyllum Barbieri) is slow-growing, but tough moss. It looks stunning when attached to rocks and other 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 for vallisneria

Vallisneria is one of the few plants found growing in the wild in Lake Tanganyika and does well with 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. We like leaving the vallisneria in their original plastic pots (with a few root tabs for extra nutrients) and placing them inside an Easy Planter for extra protection. 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. This article will provide more details on setting up an African cichlid aquarium with vallisneria.

Crinum Calamistratum is also known as the African onion, a slow-growing bulb that thrives in hard, alkaline waters. Because of its tough, crinkly foliage that can reach up to 4 feet (1.2m), it makes a great centerpiece for larger aquariums. 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. If you keep the bulb in low to moderate light and don’t move it, it will begin to make long, ruffled tendrils reaching all the way to your water surface.

Amazon sword surrounded by rocks to prevent goldfish from uprooting it

Sword plants – like the Amazon sword, red flame sword, and red melon sword – get the nickname of “tank busters” because they have large, broad leaves and extensive roots that can grow to take over an entire medium-sized aquarium. This pervasive root system allows them to survive being uprooted as long as they are well-established prior to 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 determined to eat every bit of plant they can find, you should consider growing emersed plants outside the 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 spouting roots in water with no 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.