8 Aquarium Plants That Do Not Require Substrate

A week ago I saw that one of my fish pulled one of my aquarium plants out of the sand. It started drifting in the aquarium, and I could not be bothered. Now, a week later, it is still doing well and I started to wonder if there are plants that do well without substrate, so I did some research.

There are several aquarium plants that do not need substrate to grow in an aquarium. These plants, such as Java Fern, Anubias, or Floating plants, can obtain their nutrients directly from the tank water. This makes them great for attaching to rocks or plants.

In my opinion, these plants are easier to grow and keep in any aquarium. You can also be more creative with them when decorating a tank. You can tie them down or glue them to rocks and wood, or they will float and drift freely throughout your fish tank.

These aquarium plants do not require substrate:

  1. Java Moss
  2. Java Ferns
  3. Water Lettuce
  4. Water weeds (elodea)
  5. Hornwort
  6. Marimo moss balls
  7. Anubias
  8. Cabomba

I’ll briefly go over everything that you need to know in order to successfully grow the plants on the list. Before I can tell you about them there’s something very important that you should know to keep the plants alive: fertilization.

The Importance of Fertilizer for the Plants on This List

All the plants in the list below can grow without substrate, which is great if you don’t want to rely on a nutrient-rich substrate. However, all aquarium plants need nutrients to survive and grow. Just the poop of your fish will not be enough to grow or even keep your plants alive. Therefore, you need to add fertilizer, or else you’ll be buying new plants regularly.

The best way to feed these plants is by adding liquid fertilizer to your aquarium water. If you don’t have fertilizer yet, make sure to get an inexpensive all-in-one liquid fertilizer. I use Seachem Flourish and have been recommending it for a long time. It’s available here on Amazon, your plants will appreciate it very much.

Now let’s dive into the first plant on the list!

1. Java Moss (or other mosses)

The first plant that you can add to your aquarium is java moss or other different mosses like Christmas moss or phoenix moss. These do not require gravel on the bottom of your tank to grow.

Moss is super popular in the aquarium hobby for a couple of reasons, it is super versatile. A lot of people use it in aquascaping, you can grow it to sell back to your local fish store and it is used for breeding as the baby fish can hide in the moss.

In aquascaping (using plants, rocks, and wood to make your tank look as beautiful as possible) the moss is used in multiple ways. It can be used as a foreground plant, but you can also tie it to wood and rocks.

If done correctly, you can get an effect like the picture below. It is super beautiful.

To grow moss for profit is a popular way to gain store credit at your local fish store. Moss is something a lot of stores, especially the smaller ones, are keen to take off your hands. Like I just said, stores most of the time are willing to give you store credit or trade you something for it in return.

Finally, if you are planning of breeding fish or shrimp, you should always add some moss to the tank. Especially for shrimp, it is a great place for the baby shrimp to hide from other fish that are looking to eat them.

Let’s move to the next plant!

2. Java Fern

The second plant that is on this list is the java fern, and if you have been reading anything at all about aquarium live plants you will be familiar with this one. This one does not even do well if you would put its roots in the ground.

Java fern is a hardy plant that does best under low to medium lighting. It should be glued or tied to a rock or a piece of wood in your tank and will obtain its nutrients directly from the water.

It is perfect to have plants that are not placed in the substrate when you want to move around your plants later on. This can make it very easy and a lot of fun to rearrange the layout of your fish tank every once in a while. Simply tie your Java Fern to a small piece of wood or a rock, and you’ll be able to rearrange your tank anytime you want.

If the java fern plant does well, you will see small tiny plants grow at the tips of their leaves. This is the way these plants propagate. You can leave these be and, once they fall off, let them find their own place in the tank. You can also provide these small plants with a place of their own. Make sure to attach the baby plants to an anchor, so they have time to grow stronger.

The number one mistake that beginners make when they start keeping java ferns is that they plant the plant in the substrate/gravel/sand of the aquarium. This makes a lot of sense because initially, you would think the roots of a plant need to be buried. This is not the case, because the rhizome (where the roots and leaves sprout) should be above the substrate.

If you want to learn more about this great plant, you can check out my video! Talking directly to you offers me to talk about Java Fern in more detail.

Java fern is able to get its nutrients straight from the aquarium water. It’s a slow-growing plant so the nutrients produced by your aquarium critters can be sufficient. However, if you’ve got an algae problem or notice this plant’s not doing well (it’s hardy but I’ve managed to kill Java Fern before) you’ll need some liquid fertilizer. I always recommend Leaf Zone by API which is available on Amazon.com right here.

3. Water Lettuce

Of course, this is also an option, floating plants! This way you can have live plants in your tank with all the benefits, without having to have a substrate to put the plants in.

In the list, I added water lettuce because it is a common floating plant. There are however way more options that are also great possibilities for you to add to your aquarium. I did not want to include them in the list, because then the numbers would not be representative.

Some examples include:

  • Amazon Frogbit
  • Salvinia (different kinds)

What floating plant you choose is really up to you. I’ve compiled called “6 Aquarium Plants That Float” where I go over more options and how to take proper care of them. I really encourage you to check out this before buying any floating plants.

Tip: don’t ever willingly and knowingly buy duckweed, it’s called a weed for a reason.

Amazon Frogbit

Floating plants provide great benefits to both your tank and your fish. There are a lot of fish that would stick to swimming low in the aquarium when there are no floating plants, but when those plants are added suddenly find the courage to swim up closer to the surface.

The plants provide protection for the fish. They can also provide areas of shade in your tank.

Most floating plants will propagate super quickly when there are enough nutrients for them in your water. A lot of people that keep floating plants themselves occasionally need to vent their frustration to for example duckweed.

There are multiple ways you can keep your floating plants together, and keep them from floating directly under your light, blocking it for all the other live plants you might have.

A popular way that I personally like is taking a small diameter silicon tube, sealing off both ends by melting or hot glue, and connecting the ends to form a circle. If you let this float in your tank and have all the floating plants be outside of the circle, the inside is free for light to shine through.

Floating plants are great because they suck their CO2 straight from the air above your aquarium. This means that they do well even without additional injected CO2. You only have to make sure there is enough fertilizer and the lighting is sufficient. Again, the liquid fertilizer I recommended earlier is very important when you’re trying to get floating plants to work.

4. Water Weeds (Elodea)

The fourth addition to the list is the beautiful and fast-growing plant called Elodea, but commonly known under the name “Water weeds”. The image below is a photo I took of my own aquarium.

This is a plant I always strongly advise for people that would like a nice versatile plant that can grow quickly. Because it is such a quick-growing plant, it can take up a lot of nutrients in the tank and help battle algae if you struggle with them.

The way this plant propagates is by shooting new plants from the main stems, and you can also propagate them yourself by cutting them and throwing them back in your tank. Every piece will grow to be a plant.

Do not take that too literally, I would advise cutting off parts of about 10 cm (4 inches).

Tip: You can pull together a couple of stems of this plant like a bouquet and weigh them down with something like a piece of wood or rock.

This plant really is a fast-growing plant, which means it will probably do well when you first introduce it to an existing aquarium. However, from experience, if it used all the nutrients in the tank the rapid growth can come to a sudden stop. It’s at this point you need to ask yourself whether you’re willing to maintain a fast-growing plant or switch to slower plants like the java fern, java moss or anubias discussed earlier.

5. Hornwort

This hardy plant is perfect for your aquarium. In the wild, it has managed to spread to every continent except for Antarctica, and while that may not be such a good thing in the wild, it is positive for us in our aquariums.

It can handle a lot of different water parameters, which is why it is one of the best plants for beginners. This way they will not struggle as much keeping their new live plants alive as they would with other plants.

Propagation is especially easy because it can grow new plants from the cuttings of the main plant. If you have a friend that has hornwort, it might be a good idea to ask if you can have a piece of it for your own aquarium.

The plant is also super versatile because it can grow in the substrate or as a floating plant. This is also the reason why the plant is growing in the substrate on the picture, I hope that did not put you off. 🙂

You’re able to grow this plant without additional CO2, but it can be challenging. You see, all plants need CO2 and there is not as much in your aquarium as there is in the wild. Therefore, I would recommend injecting CO2 or just giving this plant a go and see what happens.

6. Marimo Moss Balls

For a long time, I thought that these moss balls were fake, that they were produced. This is not the case, they are actually shaped like this because they kept tumbling on the bottom of fast-flowing rivers because of the current.

How cool is that! And they are also extremely suitable for your aquarium.

They are perfect if you have shrimp because they love to sit on them and in my opinion that looks beautiful.

You can get these moss balls in a variety of sizes, and I would recommend getting a handful of smaller ones for your aquarium. I do not think they grow in your tank.

Just like java moss, you’re able to buy Marimo moss balls online and have them shipped straight to your home aquarium. Right here on Amazon you’ll find the current price of these plants. And again, these moss balls are by far the easiest plants you can add to your tank.

The only thing that should be in its care guide is that you should roll them over every time you do a water change so all sides of the ball get enough light to grow.

7. Anubias

The 7th plant that I added to this list is the Anubias species. These plants are popular in the hobby because of their thick and sturdy green leaves.

They are also the plant that a lot of people have in their aquarium because their fish will not eat them. This is because a lot of bigger fish tend to either eat or ruin most plants. In a smaller community tank, you do not have to worry about that though, as the small fish could not be less interested in plants.

Because Anubias plants are so common, I am almost 100% certain that your local fish store will carry at least one type of anubias. There are different types of anubias subspecies that you can choose from. Anubias plants are also high up in the list of plants that require no CO2, if you are curious what other plants are in there you can check out that article here.

This plant is one of my long-time favorites, but there is one downside. They grow very slowly and tend to collect algae on the older leaves. A good thing that this plant has going for itself is that it is one of the few plants that produce flowers in our aquarium! How cool is that! There are some others, which is why I’ve written an article called “7 Aquarium Plants That Flower” which I encourage you to check out if this is something you would like to learn!

8. Cabomba

Last but not least is the plant with the beautiful name Cabomba, and this plant is not a beginner plant. It is not an extremely difficult plant, but not a beginner plant.

Cabomba is normally planted in the substrate, but when added to the tank as a free-floating plant the plant will float near the surface. It has a dense and silk-like structure with super delicate leaves.

It requires medium to high lighting and when used as a floating plant it will grow faster compared to the plant planted in the substrate.

In general, a floating Cabomba plant will not look as nice compared to when it is planted in the substrate.

If you’re looking to give this plant a go in your aquarium, I would recommend injecting CO2 to raise your chances. I’ve personally only seen success (high growth rates and lush green leaves) when I was injecting CO2. Before that, I did have it in my tank but it just would not grow.

My Favorite Fishtank Products to Make Life Easier

Over the years I’ve found a variety of products that make the fish keeping life so much easier. Whenever someone asks me what products I recommend buying, these are the first 5 items that come to mind. I’ll briefly list them below and state why I love them so much. I’m 100% sure you’ll love them!

1. A good gravel vacuum; Without a gravel vacuum, cleaning the substrate of your tanks is near impossible. Whenever I want to remove some of the sunken detritus from the bottom of my tank I’m happy I’ve got one of these. They’re available here on Amazon and I highly recommend them!

2. Liquid plant fertilizer; It’s no secret that I do not like nutritious aqua-soil. It makes a mess and only works a given amount of time. Instead, I always use a liquid aquarium plant fertilizer. Everyone who keeps live plants needs it, it’s not that expensive and makes your plants grow better. This is the one I use and recommend.

3. A set of aquascape tools; I love keeping plants, but planting and reorganizing my aquarium was difficult until I got a set of these tools. It’s much easier to plant any kind of plant compared to using my thick fingers. They’re also available here on Amazon.

4. A liquid-based water test kit; ever since I’m able to accurately test my water parameters, keeping fish became less stressful. Before I was always stressed that my water parameters were wrong, but using a kit such as the API Master kit, which is available here, I can measure this. It really is essential to successful fishkeeping.

Watch this video

I’ve also created a quick video where I compare 7 of the best beginner aquarium plants side by side. This might be helpful for you, so that’s why I’ll link it below!

Image references:
Java moss aquascape image – Author: Duc Viet Bui Licensed under: CC4.0 No changes made
Java Fern Image – Author: User:Pinpin Licensed under: CC1.0 No changes made
Water lettuce image – Author:Anandarajkumar Licensed under: CC3.0 No changes made
Duckweed image – Author: Mokkie Licensed under: CC3.0 No changes made
Hornwort image – Author: Totodilefan Licensed under: public domain No changes made
Cabomba image – Author:Piotr Kuczynski Licensed under: CC3.0 No changes made

Bart Sprenkels

I have been keeping multiple aquariums since I was 18 years old. Just like many of you, I started with two goldfish but quickly learned they were not suitable for aquariums. Later, I switched to a tropical community tank and I also have two pet musk-turtles in a bigger aquarium. You can read more about me here.

Recent Posts