8 Aquarium Plants That Stay Small | Great Foreground or Nano Plants

Whether you are creating an aquascape for a nano-tank or trying to find a suitable foreground plant for your aquarium, this list is for you. Among the list there is a variety of plants for beginners and more experienced fish keepers. I will clearly state what plants are easier and more likely to survive, because if you’re like me those are great options!

Without further ado, let’s jump straight into the first plant!

1. Anubias Nana Petite

Let’s start with one of the most popular and easy options when it comes to hardy small plants, the Anubias Nana Petite. There are many Anubias plants and they come in many different sizes. The nana petite stays small and only gets to be 3 – 5 inches.

This plant is a flowering plant with sturdy deep green leaves. The roots should not be buried in the substrate, instead attach the plant to a piece of driftwood or a rock. It’s a slow grower but can withstand a lot of different water parameters and does not need additional CO2. 

Often people claim that Anubias plants are impossible to kill. I would like to add “almost” to that, as sadly I have managed to let one die. The mistake I made was not attaching it to anything, and it floated around my tank for a long time: don’t do that. 

If you are standing in front of a giant rack of different Anubias varieties, look for the ones with the smallest leaves. They stay small, whereas the ones with giant leaves won’t. 

2. Bucephalandra

Normally I would try and fill these lists with popular plants, but I have fallen in love with this little plant recently. My grandfather bought 6 for his aquarium, and they are beautiful. But beware, Bucephalandra comes in many varieties that grow to be different sizes. Make sure to buy one that stays small. 

Bucephalandra is a hardy plant just like the Anubias we just talked about. In fact, they share some similarities when it comes to care and characteristics. First of all, Bucephalandra also produce tiny underwater flowers. Next, they theoretically also should not be buried in the substrate with its roots. However, this is what my grandfather and I do and I have not seen any problems yet. 

This plant does not need any high tech lighting or nutrition. Low-light is actually best for what we are trying to achieve, as it stays smallest this way. It also does not need additional CO2 to stay alive. If you do have bright lights, great fertilization and CO2 injection, the plant will grow quicker and display more color.

3. Java moss or other moss

I would recommend moss to anyone that is building an aquascape! There are many varieties with java moss being the most common. Java moss is great, but keep an eye out for other less common moss varieties and these can add some different textures and features to your scape.

Moss is one of the most diverse plants out there and really encourages you to be creative. You can fixate it to wood/rocks using fishing line or superglue, but also leave it to float through your tank. If you are really going for it, you can even grow it as a carpet.

Check out the way moss adds to the look of this aquarium, it just add so much detail!

Overall, moss is a plant that must be on this list and can add all sorts of details without taking up much space. Get creative here.

4. Cryptocoryne parva

You might see the name “Cryptocoryne” and wonder how this will fit in the “staying small” category as some grow super tall. Well, cryptocoryne or “crypt” for short is a popular genus that has many different varieties. There is a variety for all places in your aquarium, and the Parva variety is one that is great as a foreground plant!

The parva crypt grows to about 2.5 inches (6cm) which makes it the smallest crypt variety available. While crypts are really popular for doing well under low lighting, the parva needs bright lights in order to stay small. If the light is not so bright, it will try to grow upwards and reach for more light. In this case, this is not what we want. 

This Crypt needing more light does not make it a difficult plant though! As long as you keep the water parameters stable it should do well in many conditions. 

There is one thing I need to tell you: crypts melt. This means that they will die back and turn mushy when you’ve just added them to your aquarium a couple of days ago. Don’t remove them, as they are dead. They are shedding their leaves as most cryts are grown out of the water, so the plant needs to grow new plants that are suitable for underwater breathing.

5. Blyxa japonica

Blyxa japonica, often just called Blyxa is an extremely popular plant among aquascapers. It’s used as a foreground plant in many beautiful aquascapes. Here is an example, but if you keep your eyes open you can find it in many more. 

While this plant does not necessarily need a hightech system with CO2 injection and ultrahigh lighting, it does need brighter lights than most plants. This makes sense, as the plant is in the deepest part of the tank where the least light hits. Of course the plant does better with added CO2, just like all plants.

If you add some iron to your aquarium water, the tips of the plant will turn red/purple which might be a look you are going for. Just be careful when adding additional iron as some fish/creatures like shrimp don’t like a high iron concentration.

6. Echinodorus latifolius

Without repeating myself too much, I have to say that the Echinodorus genus also comes in many sizes. The popular Amazon Sword is a giant Echinodorus plant, but the Latifolius is a plant that stays rather small. It only grows to be around 4 inches (10cm) in height, given that the plant is showered in light. The more light you give it, the smaller it stays. The leaves will also be narrower with more light.

While 4 inches (10 cm) still can be rather tall, I have found this plant to be an absolute great “carpet” plant that can cover the bottom of your aquarium. When the plant is doing well, it shoots out runners from which new plants start to grow. 

This plant needs a lot of additional fertilizers, I would recommend a combination between liquid fertilizer and root tabs to provide the perfect nutrition. Additional iron will also be welcomed. You can recognise an iron deficiency when the leaves of the plant start to lose the green parts, with only the “skeleton” of the plant remaining. 

7. Sagittaria subulata (dwarf sagittaria)

This plant works great as a foreground plant because the Sagittaria subulata grows leaves of around 3 inches (7 cm) and propagates through runners to form a dense carpet. The leaves stay narrow and the plant generally grows fast. 

I have to admit that I have never grown this plant myself, but I did my research on this plant. There is something odd going on where this plant can suddenly grow leaves with a height of 20 inches (50cm). This happens when the plants are growing too dense and the leaves suddenly make a dash for the light. Everyone selling these plants makes it a selling point where “the plant can suddenly be the perfect background plant”. 

Be prepared when you buy this plant.

The Dwarf Sagittaria spreads easily and is rather hardy, tolerating rather hard/alkaline water parameters. It needs medium lighting and is often used to create a grassy carpet in aquariums. It also has other names then dwarf sagittaria, like narrow-leaved arrowhead and awl-leaf arrowhead.

8. Dwarf hairgrass (Eleocharis parvula)

Moving on to the next grass carpet plant: dwarf hairgrass. It’s another one of the more popular foreground/midground plants that can turn your aquarium greener than the grass of the neighbours. 

Like other carpet plants, this plant needs medium to high lighting in order to promote horizontal growth. The more light, the shorter it stays. It also is best to trim your dwarf hairgrass weekly so it spends more energy growing outward. 

If you are looking for a plant to create a grass-like “carpet” in your aquarium, I would recommend this one over other plants. The green lush color is unmatched and the requirements for this plant are remarkably easy. I have seen people create a carpet without adding additional CO2, but I think you should add CO2 for quicker success. 

Honorable mention: Water cabbage (Samolus valerandi)

image authorCC 4.0 no changes

The last plant on this list is a bonus plant as it is seen as a rather difficult plant to keep alive. I have spent a lot of money on aquarium plants that ended up dying, and they aren’t cheap. Therefore, I generally want to recommend plants that are likely to do well in your tank. It sucks to slowly see your plant die off.

Therefore, I have added Water Cabbage (Samolus valerandi) as a bonus plant if you want to try something new. It looks a lot like cabbage, which of course gave it its name. It’s a slow-growing plant that needs a lot of bright light. The substrate is especially important as it’s a mostly root feeding plant that loves a nutrient rich soil. You can try supplementing it with root tabs as a fertilizer.

Water cabbage prefers cooler water temperatures that are below 78 °F (26 °C), but they even do well in a room temperature aquarium that does not have a heater. Combine a cool water temperature with great lighting and nutrition and you might see some success growing this plant.

Stem plants can stay small too

Have you ever heard of a “Dutch style” aquarium? Here is a picture:

img – Shay Fertig – CC 3.0 no changes

It’s an art form that relies solely on stem plants, where the fish are just a detail and the main focus is one the beautiful plants that are clearly separated by species and do not touch the glass. We can use this technique too for our planted aquarium!

You can trim the stem plants to make them look like a small bush. This is an easy technique where you can choose yourself how tall a plant grows. But one thing to look out for: you will be trimming at least once a week if the plants are doing well. If you really want them to stay small, you will be trimming even more often. 

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.

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