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.

Are there aquarium plants that do well without substrate? Yes, there are multiple plants that do not need substrate to grow in your aquarium. These plants do not rely on their roots to take in the nutrients they need to grow, they rather can get their nutrients straight from the water through their leaves.

These plants are in my opinion more easy to keep in your aquarium, and you can also get more creative with them. You can tie them down or glue them to rocks and wood, or they will float and drift freely throughout your fish tank.

Here is a list of 8 plants that you can buy, that do not require substrate.

  1. Java moss (any other kind of moss as well)
  2. Java Fern
  3. Water Lettuce
  4. Water Weeds (Elodea)
  5. Hornwort
  6. Marimbo Moss Balls
  7. Anubias
  8. Cabomba

Note that none of these plants are root-feeders and they all get their nutrients straight from the aquarium water. To provide them with proper nutrients, you should add a liquid plant fertilizer. Check out this page where I teach you everything about my recommended liquid fertilizer.

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, they most of the times 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.

Moss is one of the few plants that you can easily order online because it’s sold in small plastic cups. It’s really for everyone that’s keeping fish so if you are thinking about getting some moss yourself I would encourage you to check out this listing on Amazon. A small disclaimer is necessary, because you support me and this website by buying through my links. However do not worry, you don’t pay anything extra. Thanks, let’s move to the next plant before I look like a total sellout!

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.

It 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 or ground when you want to move around your plant 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.

If the java fern plant does well, you will see small tiny plants grow at the tips of its leaves. This is the way these plants propagate. You can leave these be and, once they fall off, let them find there own place in the tank. You can also provide these small plants with a place of their own.

The number one mistake that beginners make when they start keeping java ferns is that the actually plant the plant in the substrate/gravel/sand that they have. This makes a lot of sense because initially you would think the roots of a plant need to be buried.

When they do this they see that their plant is not doing well and they get discouraged because the person that sold them the plant told him that this is one of the hardiest aquarium plants there is and it is hard to kill.

If you see someone that has buried their java fern’s roots, tell them about this. They will be thankful.

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 Seachem Flourish which is available on Amazon 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 for 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 is 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 your other live plants you might have.

A popular way that I personally like is taking a small diameter silicon tube, sealing off both end my 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 are enough ferts 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 advice for people that would like a nice versatile plant that can grow quick. 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 advice on 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 a 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 in your aquarium. In the wild it has managed to spread to every continent except for Antartica, and while that may not bee 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 than they would with other plants.

Propagation is especially easy, because it can grow new plants from 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. ūüôā

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 ball are by far the easiest plants you can add to your tank.

The only thing that should be in it’s 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 plant 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 slow 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 it 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.

Plants on wood or rocks

If you are looking for plants that you can attach to a piece of wood or rocks, you should definitely check out another article I wrote recently. In there I go over 5 suitable plants that will grow on wood or rocks.

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!

Related Questions

What plants definitely do need substrate to live? The plants that do need a substrate to live are the plants that rely on their root system to take up nutrients. Most plants fall into this category, but popular examples are the amazon swords, vallisneria, all crypts and for example ludwigia repens.

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 Content