Selling Aquarium Plants: Plants for the Aquarium

Aquatic plants have been an integral part of aquarium keeping since it’s earliest days, when they not only provided shelter and decoration, but also served as living filtration and aeration systems. As mechanical devices such as air pumps and filters began to take over the life support duties, it seemed as though aquatic plant keeping lost a lot of ground, eat least here in the United States. It wasn’t that long ago that American hobbyists longed for the variety of plants and equipment that would allow them to recreate the plant-dedicated look of the “Dutch” or “Leiden” style aquariums they saw in magazines. But with plant selection limited to what could be found in the local five-and-dime, and virtually no advanced lighting available commercially, potential aquatic gardeners often found themselves lamenting:

“It’s not easy being green.”

The plant half of the aquarium hobby began seeing resurgence in the 1980s, at about the same time as saltwater “Mini Reef” tanks began to catch on. This should be of little surprise, as these two pastimes have much in common, including needed equipment and an overall “balanced aquarium” philosophy. This segment of the hobby and industry has shown strong growth ever since, and the number of plant varieties available has increased dramatically.

Bread & Butter plants. Some plants are physically sturdy, easily adapt to various chemical and temperature conditions, and do well with standard aquarium lighting. These make great starter plants for newer hobbyists, and are a fine choice for any hobbyist looking for plants for his “Fish Tank.” Popular species include Anacharis (AKA Elodea or Egeria species), Hygrophila polysperma, Water Wisteria (Hygrophila difformis), most Vallisneria species, Water Sprite (Ceratopteris thalictroides), Amazon Swordplants (Echinodorus species), Java Fern (Microsorium pteropus, Banana plants (Nymphoides aquaticum), Onion plants (Crinum species) and the floating plant Hornwort (Ceratophyllum demersum).

Toast & Jelly plants? A number of other fairly common aquarium plants are somewhat more fragile and/or a little fussier about requirements, but can be kept by most hobbyists with a minimum of effort. These would include Bacopa species, Cabomba species, Didiplis deandra, Giant Hygro (Hygrophila corymbosa), Ambulia (Limnophila species), Red Ledwigia (Ludwigia species), Myriophyllum species, Rotala indica, Sagittaria species, Aponogeton species, and Cryptocoryne species, Pigmy Chain Swords (Echinodorus tenellus) and Anubias species.

Truffle SoufflĂ© plants? Some plants are best left to those with a real green thumb and a willingness to spend a little extra time and money to set up a real “plant tank” with extra lighting, and possibly CO2 injection and other gadgetry. These would include the very challenging Madagascar Lace Plant (Aponogeton madagascariensis), Barclaya longifolia, Alternanthera species, Pennywort (Hydrocotyle species), Cardamine species, any of the red Rotala species, and Baby Tears (Glossostigma elatinoides).

House plants. A number of commonly sold “aquarium plants” aren’t particularly aquatics at all, and really are better off in an aquaterrarium sort of environment. Submerged, they usually die steadily, albeit slowly, and a few hobbyists get a kick out of them while they last. If you really must offer these, please label them accordingly. Common varieties would be Sandriana (Dracaena species), Red Crinkle (Liriope muscani), Palms (Dracaena species), and Pine (Lycopodium species).

Lighting. Light is what plants would call “food” if they were in the mood to chat with us. And just as in the case of our food, there are issues of both quality and quantity. Quality roughly equates to light spectrum, or the colors of light a source emits. Some light bulbs are specifically designed to provide balanced meals: nourishment for strong, healthy plant growth. Others are a bit more like fast food, cheap and convenient, but not always healthy.

Light quantity is generally regarded as the more important factor for good plant growth. Standard, single-lamp fluorescent aquarium fixtures will grew a few types of plants adequately, but are woefully underpowered for a true “Plant Tank.” Fortunately, in recent years, light fixtures with double or triple lamps, compact fluorescents, and powerful metal halide fixtures have become readily available. While there is no solid formula to determine the precise amount of light needed for a given tank, a good rule of thumb is a minimum of two watts of light per gallon of water for good plant growth. Three or four watts per gallon would accomplish more rapid growth, especially if carbon dioxide levels were also enhanced artificially.

“Fertilizers.” For customers keeping a “Fish Tank” with standard lighting, true fertilizers that supply the major nutrients Nitrogen, Phosphorus and Potassium (N-P-K) are unnecessary; they are usually in abundant supply as fish waste decomposes. In fact, adding a true fertilizer to this type of setup will likely induce an algae bloom. On the other hand, plant “supplements,” containing iron and numerous trace elements, can improve the growth and coloration of aquarium plants. These are usually added as liquids directly to the water, but there are time-release tablets available as well.

For “Plant Tanks” with rapid plant growth, strong lighting, and minimal fish load, some of the major nutrients can be in short supply. It’s best to stock a second line of supplements that include at least nitrogen for these customers.

Laterite. This rich, red clay is often added to the lower layers of gravel by aquatic gardeners. Its function isn’t fully understood, but some think it provides a short term supply of iron to the system, many think it acts as a reservoir for other useful ions, and most think it is probably a lot more complicated than either of the first explanations. While not indispensable, many experienced hobbyists believe it has great value in a planted aquarium.

Carbon Dioxide generators. In tanks with strong lighting (over 2 watts per gallon) and the resulting rapid plant growth, carbon dioxide can soon becoming a limiting factor. Under these conditions, plants can consume more CO2 than animal life and gas exchange at the water surface can provide. So, in order to make full use of the enhanced lighting, many hobbyists add a CO2 generating system to the tank. Classic systems employed a standard compressed gas tank with valves and regulators, but some newer units produce CO2 by chemical or electochemical reactions.

Other High Tech options. A truly dedicated aquatic gardener or gadget collector might want to consider a couple of other big ticket items to his system. Three likely choices would be a pH monitor to turn his CO2 flow on and off, low wattage undergravel cable heating to enhance substrate nutrient exchange, and a Reverse Osmosis water treatment system to eliminate unwanted elements in tap water.

Simple add-on sales. Not every customer will have a use – or a pocketbook – for CO2 injection, cable heating and R/O treatment units, so keep an eye open for some less expensive tie-in opportunities. Extension devices to grab/poke/prune plants without getting a face-full of water are a good start. Books on plants, planting and decorating are great at getting the creative juices flowing, and are available for beginning and advanced aquarists.

Special fish and invertebrates. Several unusual species of livestock are in demand almost solely due to the aquatic plant enthusiasts. Foremost is probably the Siamese Algae Eater (Crossocheilus siamensis), not to be confused with the common Chinese Algae Eater (Gyrinocheilus aymonieri). The Siamese Algae Eater (SAE) is highly regarded for its willingness to browse on nuisance red beard algae without causing undue damage to plants. Likewise, several species of freshwater shrimp are often employed for control of hair algae.

Displaying live plants. Retailers are probably most likely to simply add live plants to their fish selling tanks, and there are some obvious advantages to this technique. First, it enhances the overall look of the sales tanks, hopefully promoting both plant and fish sales. Additionally, it puts the plants right where the vast majority of the customers are looking anyway. Finally, it’s cheap, making use of systems that are already in place.

Disadvantages to this system become equally obvious, especially the net-lashing that plants often take when a careless employee attempts to sell fish. There are also lighting, fish-grazing, quarantine and labeling issues to consider as well. So another option is to set up special display units only for the plants themselves. There are attractive commercial units readily available, or the dealer may create his own, selecting proper lighting and circulation to make an attractive display that will maintain the vigor of the aquatic plants.

In addition to the sale tanks, a Not-For-Sale display tank is a great selling tool for aquatic plants. Here, plants can be placed in an attractive setting, properly cared for and left undisturbed so customers can see their full potential. Even a common bunch plant like Hygrophila looks radically different after a few days of aligning its leaves toward the light, and rooting plants like Jungle Val soon make themselves at home and start sending out long, straight leaves and multiple runners. Some plants may even grow quickly enough to take cuttings to use as retail stock. Even the fish in such an exhibit will look their best, and will lead to additional sales of those species from your stock tanks.

SIDE BAR: Keep it legal.

The possession and sale of some fairly common aquarium plants is prohibited in certain states under noxious weed legislation. Do your homework and make sure the plants you offer are allowed in your state, and make sure any discarded plants or cuttings cannot find their way into any natural waterway.

SIDE BAR: Live plants and algae

Many hobbyists avoid live plants under the mistaken impression that they somehow cause rapid algae growth. In truth, healthy, growing live plants actually reduce algae growth by consuming nutrients that would otherwise act as fertilizer for the algae. Some algae growth is normal for any tank, but algae blooms in planted aquariums are often due to overfertilization (either by addition of chemicals, overfeeding fish, or failing to clean up dead plant leaves) or some other imbalance.

SIDE BAR: Making REAL profits with FAKE plants!

While much of this article focuses on selling live aquatic plants, don’t overlook the sales potential of their plastic and silk imitations. The need for live plants to add oxygen and remove fish waste products dissipated about a half-century ago, as air pumps and filtration systems became commonplace. So, for all but the aquatic gardeners in the hobby, artificial plants are every bit as functional as real plants. For the retailer, perhaps the biggest downside to stocking a large assortment is the occasional ribbing from a few purist customers: “What’s next? Plastic fish?.” However, artificial plants have more than enough positives to outweigh a little teasing:

They look real – many of today’s artificial plants look so lifelike, the easiest way to tell them from real plants is that they’re too perfect.

…and then some – for those fishkeepers looking for something a little unreal, artificial plants are also available in fluorescent, pearlescent, and even phosphorescent colors.

They last almost forever – many customers – especially those with a black thumb – see artificial plants as a good value, since they don’t die.

But not quite forever– though they don’t technically die, most plastic and silk plants eventually fade, break, or just look boring, creating a market for repeat sales.

They require no care – no additives, light-enhancing or pruning required. Other than an occasional rinsing or scrubbing, the hobbyist can just take these for granted. Nobody eats them – they can be kept in with many fish that would mow down live plants, like silver dollars, cichlids and some plecostomus.

They display easily – most come in attractive packaging ready for your pegboard or slatwall; or many manufacturers have attractive racks available.

This article originally appeared in

Pet Age Magazine