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Using Live Plants: One of my Keys to Success

by TFH Magazine on January 8, 2010 at 10:56 am

By Mike Hellweg

One of the things you may notice that is different between my approach and Ted’s is that I use live plants in every tank. I know Ted’s reasoning is sound—many aquatic habitats do not have live plants in them, especially the blackwater habitats that are home to many of the fish that both he and I enjoy. Sometimes the fish we keep never see a live plant in their entire life in the wild. The only plant matter in many of these habitats is the terrestrial plant material that falls into the water and provides structure for the fish to call home.

Plants can provide a more naturalistic environment for fish and can serve as both hiding places and spawning sites.

Plants can provide a more naturalistic environment for fish and can serve as both hiding places and spawning sites.

So why use live plants? I’ve been using them since my first goldfish bowl in 1966. With but a few exceptions, I have included live plants, even if it were only Java moss Taxiphyllum sp. or a sprig of anacharis Egeria densa in every setup since that first bowl when I was a child and the clerk at the drug store told my Mom and I that fish had to have live plants to survive. Over the years, I’ve found that when I include live plants in tanks, I have more spontaneous or serendipitous spawns, and have more luck raising fry than I do on the few occasions when I don’t use live plants. I also learned from some of my early mentors in the breeding part of the hobby that they also used live plants when trying to breed just about any new fish. It works! I even toss Java moss into quart jars with my male bettas when I’m working on growing fancy bettas.

Our tanks are not natural bodies of water; they are artificial glass boxes full of water. Plants help even fish from blackwater habitats to feel more at home than those tanks without them. The fish color up quickly and set about exploring the planted tank, whereas in a plain tank they might hide for several days before feeling secure enough to go exploring. I contend that adding plants gives tanks a smell that is more natural to fish, helping them to settle in quickly. Go ahead, give a handful of aquatic plants a sniff! If they’re healthy, they’ll have an earthy smell to them, just like freshly turned garden soil. Some have even a more pleasant smell to them. A healthy tank usually has this smell, too. If it smells even a bit off, then the tank has something wrong with it. More on that another time…

In addition, plants carry all kinds of beneficial bacteria and other beneficial critters on their surfaces. You can set up a new tank with a raw filter and plant the tank well, and there will be no cycling required. The plants will begin taking up nutrients from the water very soon after being added. And the bacteria on them will quickly populate the tank. So you can basically set up a tank, add plants, and it is good to go. In fact, when I set up small spawning tanks and add plants, the fish experience no discomfort at all when I add them soon after—they get right down to spawning!

Some other benefits of live plants that I‘ve found:

1. They provide natural filtration of the water, removing ammonia and other waste products from the water column. Even if it is only a negligible amount, it is still a benefit over unplanted tanks.

2. They add oxygen to the water. Again, even if only a small amount, it is still a benefit over unplanted tanks. In conjunction with this, they also take in carbon dioxide during the day, again a benefit over non-planted tanks.

3. They provide a source of food for the fish to graze upon, either directly or indirectly. They serve directly for fish that consume them as food, and indirectly by serving as a surface area for a vast colony of microflora and microfauna which serve as foods for fry and small fish to graze upon between feedings.

4. They provide a place for dominated fish to hide, and provide a secure feeling even for dominant fish. The fish know there is a safe place where they can hide if they need to, so they spend more time out in the open. Female fish have a place to hide after spawning so they are out of the male’s line of sight, giving them safety until the breeder can remove the fish.

5. They provide an ever changing environment for the fish. Fish are intelligent, and are evolved to adapt to a constantly changing environment. Plants move, grow and change on a daily basis, providing the fish with something akin to a natural environment. A path that is open one day might be blocked the next, causing the fish to have to rethink and work out a new routine. Animal behaviorists call this behavioral enrichment and consider it an important part of any animal husbandry program.

6. They provide territorial markers so that fish can define breeding territories without claiming the entire tank, allowing groups of fish to live in peace where otherwise they would be fighting constantly.

7. They provide a spawning site for many species. Many egg scatterers lay their eggs among the myriad leaves and stems of stem plants or fine-leafed mosses. Many cave spawners will spawn in the area under the rhizome and between the roots of Anubias sp. or Java Fern Microsorum sp. Many bubblenest builders will build their nests under the leaves of floating plants like water sprite Ceratopteris sp. or under the leaves of submerged plants like Anubias sp. Fish like Pyrrhulina and Copenia, as well as festivums, angels and discus, lay their eggs on the surface of plant leaves. And some fish species, like the Trigonostigma species and some of the Nannostomus actually lay their eggs on the underside of the leaves.

8. Some species incorporate plant material into their nest, weaving a nest out of aquatic plants (sticklebacks), or placing plant leaves or stems into their bubble nests to give them strength and security (Colisa sp. for example).

9. Some plant species are excellent filters removing carbonates and even heavy metals from the water—so much so that they are used in wastewater treatment in commercial sewage treatment plants. If you have a trace of a certain metal in the water, a fish may not spawn, but certain plants may remove that metal and make the water safer for your fish, maybe even being the edge you need to get them to spawn.

10. Last, but by no means least, is the fact that I like live plants and I like to see them in my tanks, so it provides me with nearly as much enjoyment as do the fish. I’m just as challenged by figuring out what I need to do to get a particular plant to propagate as I am with trying to figure out the triggers to get a particular fish species to spawn.

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Posted in Uncategorized by TFH Magazine on January 8th, 2010 at 10:56 am.

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