Practical Information About Keeping, Breeding and Buying Dwarf Cichlids

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South American  
    sp. "Abacaxis"
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  Aquarium Plants

      Live plants benefit your aquariums and dwarf cichlids in many ways.  They improve your water quality by providing excellent surfaces that can be colonized by beneficial nitrifying bacteria.  They directly remove some compounds from the water.  Some types can act as efficient particulate filters that help keep water crystal clear. Besides water quality live plants can be a great help in providing quality habitat.  Plants can be used to provide the complexity that dwarf cichlids need to feel secure.  They also provide a rich environment for the microorganisms that young fish feed upon.  Many plants are eaten by fish either intentionally or incidentally as they sift through the substrate looking for food.  They also provide the overhead cover that makes dwarfs feel secure.  In the wild many dangers come at the fish from overhear so they are especially attuned to threats from above.  Good planting will provide a sense of security from any real or imagined overhead threats.  Besides providing overhead cover the plants will cut the amount of light that penetrates and most dwarfs prefer subdued light.

      Despite all of these great benefits many aquarists do not keep live plants in their tanks.  Although some have legitimate reasons for not using live plants, it is my experience that most people just don't think they can keep plants alive in their tanks.   Of course, I disagree.  The conditions we create for our fish are great conditions for many different plants and I believe that any successful dwarf cichlid keeper can succeed with at least some plants.

      Keeping live plants can be very simple or very complex.  From simply sticking some plants in your tank to setting up elaborate systems with CO2 injection and high output lights there is a level of keeping plants that will appeal to every fish keeper.  I always tell people that the reason we keep fish is to find some satisfaction for ourselves so we each need to find what gives us the most enjoyment and pursue it.  I have the same philosophy about growing plants and, although I love a beautifully landscaped show tank, I much prefer to keep a tank thick with easy to grow plants.

      Basically I am a lazy plant tender and I want plants that I don't have to pay much special attention to.  I will never try to change my water for the plants so they must thrive or at least tolerate soft fairly acid water.  They must be adaptable to fairly low light levels and must do well in the upper 70F degree range  Fortunately there are lots of plants that will so well in these conditions.  I have usually have six or seven different types of plants growing in my tanks.  I have a simple method for selecting the species I keep.  I buy different kinds and try to grow them. If they grow and reproduce I keep growing them and if they die then I don't.  While this might sound obvious, I have found it works very well for me as I now have a number of reliable plants that always produce a surplus.  Here are a few of my favorites.

     Water Sprite Ceratopteris thalictroides

      If  I could only have one plant for my tanks it would be water sprite.  This is an amazingly versatile plant that can be grown as a floating or rooted plant.  It has a delightful light green color and thrives in soft acid water.  It does well in varying light conditions. In low light it generally does quite well but growth can slow.  Under bright lighting water sprite can grow very rapidly.  Water sprite reproduces by budding smaller plants from its leaf margins.  These tiny plants will continue to grow until the mature leaf dies and disintegrates. A single plant can produce hundreds of smaller plants and it is possible to cultivate a lot of water sprite in a short time. However, as with most fast growing plants, water sprite is short lived and the soft leaves gradually die off.

      I use water sprite as both a floating and a rooted plant. Since it grows quickly I use it a lot to create dense plantings in newly set up tanks.  Typically every tank in my fish room will have a covering layer of water sprite. In some tanks the plants will be lightly distributed while in others there will be a layer of plants that is several inches thick.  The floating water sprite develops an extensive root system that hangs below and provides great benefits to the tank and its inhabitants.  Individual water sprite plants can grow very large.  I have often had single floating plants with leaves touching each end of a 4ft tank.  Given ideal conditions I have no idea how large they could get but in every aquarium they are always growing and each new leaf is larger and stronger than the previous.  

        The floating water sprite with their large flowing roots are perfect for anchoring to the bottom of the tank.  You can plant them directly in the substrate but if you do so be very careful not to bury the crown of the roots.  They will do best if they have at least an inch of their roots exposed.  Water sprite roots do not do very well buried in the substrate and often they will very slowly rot away.  However, often a few roots will continue to hold the plant in place.  I think it is better to anchor the plants down with rocks placed on their roots.  I take the plant and wrap the roots around a small rock and carefully place it on the tank bottom.  The plants thrive this way and by leaving the roots exposed I gain all of the benefits they provide.  It is easy to move these types of anchored plants and they will work great in a bare bottom tank or one with little substrate.

      Java Moss   Vesicularia dubyana

        Java Moss is the second most valuable plant for me. This is a moss and not a plant and it grows in stingy stands of finely leaved stems that grow together into a mass of vegetation. This is a wonderful plant to have in every tank as it provides great browsing surfaces for fry and small fish as well as providing additional complexity and filtration. Java moss grows in most water conditions and once established will need regular trimming to insure that it does not get too thick.

        Java Moss is found throughout Southeast Asia and there are more than a hundred and twenty five species in the genus but only a couple are aquatic. Java Moss reproduces easily as any small piece will gradually begin to grow. It can be easily torn apart or trimmed with scissors. I use this in every tank in some fashion. It is great to use to reinforce line of sight barriers in the tank. I rarely see Java Moss offered for sale in shops but it is easily available on the Web.

      Java Fern   Microsorium pteropus

        The Java Fern is a great plant for dwarf cichlid tanks. It is incredibly hardy and will do well in any water that is wet. They are slow growing but require very little light. They do not need to be planted and I don't know of any fish that will eat them. This is a true fern that grows from a rhizome that creeps along the bottom as new leaves grow from its end. Individual leaves can get quite large measuring up to 15 inches or more in length. However leaves of this size are generally found only on old plants that have been undisturbed for some time.

        Java Fern is very easy to reproduce. Older leaves will spontaneously generate adventitious plantlets from the ends of the leaves. These tiny plants will slowly grow to be recognizable small plants and can be removed and attached elsewhere to grow into full sized plants. Another method of reproduction is to divide the rhizome into segments. This will result in a number of plants from one and all should thrive.


        Many of the different species of Cryptocoryne make great additions to a dwarf cichlid tank. I have a couple of different species that thrive for me. Over the years these particular forms seems to do well in my conditions and I have tanks that are chocked with them. Crypts have extensive root systems and need a decent substrate to root in. I have kept them in some marginal conditions over the years, including in bare bottom tanks, and they have always survived but they will certainly do best if provided a decent substrate.

        I grow my Crypts in two way; planted directly in the substrate and planted in containers. When I plant them in the substrate I generally like to have at least and inch and a half of substrate and preferably more. As I only keep a few tanks with that much gravel I mostly plant in containers. I use all kinds of different containers for them. Regular clay flower pots work great and the plants love them. My problem is that putting them in a pot of that shape raise them up 4 -6 inches and most of my tanks are shallow making this impractical. Instead I use shallow containers that will hold  about 2 inches of gravel. My best source for these containers is the bakery section of the grocery store where there are a myriad of different products offered in clear plastic containers.

        Cryptocorynes reproduce by sending out shoots from their roots. these shoots are quite aggressive and I have often had them grow out of the hole in the bottom of a clay pot. Normally they will form a mass of intertwined roots and shoots in the container. The plants do great in these conditions but when you finally try to separate them it can be very hard. A couple of general "rules" about Crypts are that they don't do well with a lot of disturbance. I believe this is true but not absolute. A second "rule" is that at some point you will experience situations where all of their leaves will just seem to melt away. I have had this happen but it is very rare for me. However, the literature is full of warnings about this.

      Pygmy Chain Sword   Echinodorus tenellus

        I usually have this plant growing in a number of tanks that are set up for long term use. It takes a bit to get going but once it starts sending out runners the entire bottom of the tank can quickly be covered by a mat of swords. This makes an almost impossible labyrinth from which to net an elusive Apisto so you want to avoid this plant in a set up where you will need to frequently remove fish.

        Care is pretty easy, just plant the roots into any decent substrate and give them enough light. These do need  a little more light than some of the other plants I have featured but the are not a high light demanding plant. Rather, they prefer a moderate light and will survive but not thrive if in low light situations like a tank that has a heavy cover of water sprite. As mentioned, they reproduce by sending out runners. Once a plant has a couple of sets of leaves it can be separated from the runner.

        These are Just a few of the great plants you can use in your dwarf cichlid aquarium. I have had good experiences with several of the different Anubias species as well as with Wisteria, Riccia, and several swords. Of course, duck weed is an option if you don't have anything else. It will quickly cover the top of the tank providing shade and water filtration. Unfortunately it is almost impossible to get rid of once it is established so be sure you want it before you get it. Be careful if you shop is a store that has it floating in their tanks as it can easily come home with a fish purchase.   


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