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How to buy aquarium plants online
25 January 2010
Buying plants to be delivered by mail has been popular for many years. Compared with fish, plants are inexpensive and very easy to ship. They usually arrive safely, and if slightly damaged, plants will usually recover quickly, so the risks attached with sending plants out by post are very small.
But as with any other aspect of the hobby, there are ways to buy plants online that will maximise your chances of success. In this article we’ll look at the whole process, from selecting your plants through to ensuring they establish themselves successfully in your aquarium.
Pros and cons to buying online
Your local tropical fish shop will very likely has a selection of aquarium plants, so why not buy them from there? The chief arguments in favour of buying plants locally are that you can choose the plants you want and then take them home immediately. Buying plants this way also makes it easier to judge the size and quality of the plant in question. If the plants are being maintained appropriately, they will likely have settled down by the time you buy them and may even have grown a bit; new leaves and roots should be apparent.
So why buy plants online at all? The two main advantages of buying plants online are the wider selection of species available and the usually lower cost of the plants compared to those sold by tropical fish shops. Online retailers usually pride themselves on the range of species they sell, so instead of settling for whatever plant species your local shop has in stock, you can choose precisely the species you want for your aquarium.
The lower cost of plants when bought online should be put into context. The plants sent out by online retailers are usually quite small, so the fact they’re cheaper is partly a reflection of their smaller size. They may also be cheaper because they’re aquatic plants in their emerse (above-the-waterline) form rather than their submerse (below-the-waterline) form. Once put into the aquarium, such plants enter a transitional phase, sometimes called ‘shock’, during which time they shed their emerse foliage and grow new submerse foliage better adapted to life underwater. In short, while mail order plants are often cheaper than ones bought in tropical fish shops, there’s sometimes a trade-off in terms of time, with some plants needing longer to develop into specimens of comparable size and beauty.
Selecting plant species
As ever in the fishkeeping hobby, research is important. Start with environmental parameters. Like fish, plants do best within certain temperature, pH, and hardness ranges. For example, while Vallisneria spiralis does well in both unheated and tropical aquaria, it doesn’t like soft and acidic water. Setting up tanks with unusual conditions, such as brackish water, may limit the range of plants even further. Books on aquarium plants will outline these preferences, making this part of the process relatively straightforward.
Water flow is another issue. Some plants are adapted to life in still waters such as ponds, while others prefer flowing water. Water lilies (Nymphaea spp.) are examples of plants that prefer relatively low water currents, and if exposed to strong water currents their stems and leaves will be destroyed. By contrast, Vallisneria species often inhabit rivers, and they tolerate strong water currents very well.
The type of substrate used will be another factor in your decision making. Floating plants obviously don’t care about the substrate, and nor do plants known as epiphytes, which grow attached to bogwood. The epiphytes commonly sold as Java moss, Java fern, Anubias species, and Bolbitis heudelotii. Other plants require some sort of substrate. Some are fine with plain gravel, but others are more fussy, and need a nutrient-rich substrate to do well. Again, check these requirements before purchase.
Light intensity is a key issue. Many all-in-one aquarium kits have relatively modest lighting systems, especially at the low end of the price range. Some species are famous for doing well under mediocre lighting, including Java ferns and Anubias, but many plants are much less adaptable. Aquarium plant books will often describe species as being ‘shade tolerant’ or ‘requires bright light’, and this should be a guide when selecting species for a particular aquarium. Shade tolerant species will grow nicely, albeit slowly, in tanks with around 1 watt per gallon, but plants that need bright light will require at least 2 watts per gallon before they’ll do well.
Finally, think about tankmates. Danios, rasboras and tetras are popular choices for planted tanks because they don’t harm even delicate plants. But catfish and especially cichlids are notorious for uprooting plants, and many of the larger barbs and characins simply view plants as food. In tanks where big, boisterous fish are being kept, you may need to limit your selection of plants to those species tolerant of disturbance and too large or tough to be eaten or otherwise damaged.
Many online retailers offer bumper packs of aquarium plants at a discount. These are usually sold in terms of aquarium size, the idea being each pack contains enough for a 20 gallon tank, a 30 gallon tank, or whatever.
The purchaser doesn’t get to choose the selection of plants though, and that can be a problem with these packs. Not all selections of plants will be suitable for your particular aquarium, and some packs may contain non-aquatic plants with no chance of long term success. So while a bumper pack can be good value, do read through the list of included species carefully. It may be better value to choose a smaller selection of plants that you can be sure will do well.
Both tropical fish shops and online retailers are guilty of sometimes selling non-aquatic plants masquerading as aquarium plants. Commonly traded species include:
Acorus gramineus (Japanese rush)
Aglaonema simplex (Malayan swordplant)
Chlorophytum bichetii (Wheat plant, Siam lily)
Cyperus alternifolius (Umbrella plant, aquatic palm)
Dracaena deremensis (Green dracaena)
Dracaena marginata (Dragon tree)
Dracaena sanderiana (Lucky bamboo)
Eleocharis spp. (Hairgrass)
Fittonia verschaffeltii (Nerve plant)
Hemigraphis exotica (Purple waffle)
Ophiopogon japonicus (Mondo grass)
Pilea cadierei (Aluminum plant)
Selaginella willdenowii (Umbrella fern, peacock fern)
Trichomanes javanicum (Aquatic fern, Borneo fern)
None of these plants will last long in aquarium. In some cases they actually work quite well as marginal plants around ponds (for example Japanese rush) but most are simply garden plants or houseplants that somehow had the misfortune to end up in the tropical fish trade.
What to expect
Plants are sold in a variety of ways. Some plants are sent out as cuttings. These include many of the ‘stem’ plants like Rotala and Hygrophila. Each stem will count as one plant, so if you buy ten such plants, you’ll get ten stems, typically 10-15 cm long. Stems are typically taken from plants that were grown underwater, so given good light and the right substrate, these usually develop new roots and leaves very quickly.
Other plants are sent out loose, as individual plants. How quickly they settle into the aquarium will depend on whether they were grown emerse or submerse. True aquatics that cannot live above the waterline, like Vallisneria, will normally adapt with little fuss, but those plants sometimes grown above the waterline, such as Amazon swords and Cryptocoryne species, may take longer to settle in. Epiphytes are also sold as loose plants, and these will need to be attached to a suitable bogwood root or piece of rock before being placed in the aquarium. Black cotton thread is typically used to tie them into place.
A third category includes the potted plants. These are shipped in plastic pots filled with rockwool. Typically grown hydroponically, sometimes with the leaves above the waterline, such plants are normally larger than those sold individually. The pots protect the roots to some degree, meaning that they survive shipping and subsequent planting rather well. Opinion is divided as to whether these pots help or hinder aquarium plants, but at the very least you should be aware that epiphytes like Java fern and Anubias will not do well in them.
Finally, there are plants sold as tubers or bulbs, most commonly water lilies and various Aponogeton species and hybrids. These ship very well and are normally inexpensive, but it may take some weeks before they sprout into respectable looking plants.
Snails often get into aquaria via new plants. Snail-killing products are available at aquarium shops and these are best used dips. New plants can be placed in the dip for a period of time, before being removed and planted in the aquarium. It’s best not to kill snails in the aquarium because dead snails can harm water quality, and in some cases the chemicals used may be toxic to fish and especially invertebrates such as shrimps.
Lead weights, pots or bare roots?
Bunches of plants are often shipped with lead weights. The main purpose of lead weights is to hold a plant down with its roots near the substrate. They’re particularly useful with fast growing things like Vallisneria and Elodea that if held down this way quickly grow roots that will further secure them in place. The problem with lead weights is that the constrict the plant, and in doing so constrain growth and can snap leaves and stems. In most cases it’s better to remove the lead weights after purchase.
Potted plants may be simply pushed into the substrate. The pot keeps the roots relatively safe, and as the plant grows, its roots and stems will expand outwards more or less unimpeded. The pot also provides some protection from burrowing fish like catfish, loaches and cichlids. However, not all plants do well in pots. As mentioned already, epiphytes like Java fern and Anubias species will not. Other plants don’t look good all bunched together in one pot. Species such as Rotala and Vallisneria may be sold in pots, but they’re best carefully removed from the rockwool and each plant or cutting spread out in the aquarium with space between the for future growth.
Incidentally, you don’t have to remove all the rockwool. It’s harmless and non-toxic. If you can’t winkle out each plant from the clump of rockwool, just pull away whatever you can, making sure that the white roots are free of the stuff.
Cryptocoryne species are notorious for reacting badly to changes, including being planted in a new aquarium. The leaves seem to melt away as the plant rots. Sometimes snails and fish will nibble on the decaying leaves, but they aren’t causing the problem.
Precisely why Cryptocoryne Rot occurs is not known. It may be a natural part of the plant’s life cycle in the wild, occurring as the plant switches between being a bog plant during the dry season and an aquatic plant during the wet season. It is very likely that if your Cryptocoryne was grown above the waterline, suddenly being placed underwater will produce the same effect. Other possible triggers include changes in water chemistry, deterioration of water quality, changes in light intensity, and movement of the plant from one spot to another.
Whatever the causes, Cryptocoryne Rot is rarely fatal to the plant. All that is required is sufficient time for recovery, usually just a few weeks. In fact the hardier Cryptocoryne species like Cryptocoryne wendtii may show little tendency to Cryptocoryne Rot at all, and while a few leaves might be shed, new growth is so rapid you’ll hardly notice.
Add your new plants to the aquarium carefully. Stem plants like Cabomba, Rotala and Hygrophila should have a few leaves removed from the bottom of the stem, and then about 2 cm of the stem lowered carefully into a pre-made hole in the substrate. Never push the plant directly into the substrate. With the stem in place, slide some gravel or sand back into the hole to secure the stem. Allow about 5 cm of space between each stem so the arrangement doesn’t look too crowded. While it won’t be apparent now, stem plants usually grow fast, and if clumped together too closely, you’ll end up with a messy tangle.
Plants that grow from rosettes, like Vallisneria and Amazon swords, normally have the rosette above the substrate, and only the white roots within the substrate. The rosette is where the leaves attach to the roots, and typically forms a pale green or off-white structure. It’s important not to get gravel or sand in between the leaves, otherwise the base of the leaves will be damaged. Once that happens, the leaf usually dies. It’s better to be conservative here, and a rosette plant will be happier planted too far above the substrate than too deeply. Again, use a finger to form a little hole in the substrate, and slide the roots into the hole. Back fill the hole to secure the roots. Allow plenty of space between each rosette plant: these tend to be large and/or fast-growing species. Both Amazon swords and Vallisneria will also produce lots of daughter plants once settled.
Epiphytes should be removed from pots if supplied that way. They can be tied onto bogwood or rocks with black cotton. It takes a few weeks for these plants to grow the roots they need to secure themselves, but once established, the black cotton will be covered by new growth. After a few months, you can snip the cotton and pull it away, should you want to.