25 Beautiful Aquarium Plants That Do Not Need 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. I started to wonder if there are plants that do well without substrate, so I did some research.

I’ll briefly go over everything that you need to know in order to successfully grow the plants on the list.

1. Java Fern (Microsorum Pteropus)

The first plant that is on this list is the java fern. If you have been reading anything at all about aquarium live plants you will be familiar with this one.

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. It is able to obtain its nutrients directly from the water.

I recommend adding liquid fertilizer to provide Java Fern with nutrients.

It is convenient to have plants that are not placed in the substrate. Especially when you want to move around your plants later on. It can make it very easy 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. 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 you’ll need some liquid fertilizer.

Although this plant is hardy, I have managed to kill Java Fern in the past. But in general it is a very tough plant.

2. Java Fern Windelov (Microsorum pteropus “Windelov)

Next up: Java Fern Windelov! A beautiful variety of the Java Fern that I described earlier. The care requirements are similar, but they look very different.

As you can see on the image, Java Fern Windelov has a completely different leaves. The ends of the leaves split into finer sections.

Remember: Java Fern plants prefer to be attached to rocks.

On the picture it shows Java Fern Windelov buried in substrate. Well, that is not necessary. Overall, the plant does much better when glued to wood or rocks.

3. Anubias Barteri

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. Small fish could not be less interested in plants.

I am almost 100% certain that your local fish store will carry at least one type of Anubias. They are very common.

There are different types of Anubias subspecies that you can choose from.

Spoiler: the next plant on this list is the Anubias Nana, a smaller variant.

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.

Anubias is one of the few plants that produce flowers in our aquarium! How cool is that! I’ve written an article called “7 Aquarium Plants That Flower” which I encourage you to check out.

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4. Anubias Nana

Anubias Nana is my grandfather’s favorite plant. It essentially is a smaller variety of the Anubias Barteri. The leaves are much smaller.

What I like about these different varieties is that there is so much choice. From experience I know that all Anubias plants have roughly the same requirements.

You can design an entire tank just with Anubias plants. How cool is that?

Again, for Anubias I recommend low light and a little liquid fertilizer every once in a while. They are slow growers that don’t need much.

5. Bucephalandra

An aquarium plant that gained popularity in the past couple of years is Bucephalandra! It is an amazing plant with weird textured leaves. It comes in many different colors.

From experience I can tell you that these plants do well when they’re attached to driftwood or rocks. They grow slowly and need low to medium lighting.

My favorite Buce varieties have small purple leaves with curving edges. Just head down to your local aquarium store and see what they have in stock.

6. Water Lettuce

Of course, this is also an option, floating plants! By using floating plants, you can have live plants in your tank without a substrate to put the plants in.

I included 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.

What floating plant you choose is really up to you. I’ve compiled a list called “6 Aquarium Plants That Float“. Here 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.

7. Duckweed

Duckweed: it is called a weed for a reason. Once you add it to your tank and it starts multiplying, it’s hard to remove. Think twice before adding it to your tank.

Floating plants provide great benefits to both your tank and your fish.

Scared fish stick to swimming low in the aquarium when there are no floating plants. By adding floating plants, scared fish suddenly find the courage to swim up closer to the surface. They provide shelter and security!

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 occasionally need to vent their frustration. Especially people with duckweed in their tanks.

8. Amazon Frogbit

Amazon Frogbit

There are multiple ways you can keep your floating plants together. Use them to keep plants from floating directly under your light. This way, they do not block all light for other plants in the tank.

A popular way is taking a small diameter silicon tube, sealing off both ends by melting or hot glue, and connecting the ends to form a circle. Keep all floating plants outside of the circle, to keep the inside free for light to shine through.

9. Water Spangles (Salvinia natans)

My personal favorite: water spangles. I love the fine texture. And the leave size is perfect. It is much more controllable than duckweed and not as large as water lettuce.

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.

10. Java Moss

Did you know that you can grow moss in your aquarium?

Java moss is super popular in the aquarium hobby for a couple of reasons. The major reason: it is super versatile.

A lot of people use java moss in aquascaping. You can also grow it to sell back to your local fish store. Finally, it is used for breeding as the baby fish can hide in the moss.

In aquascaping, 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.

There are other types of moss too, for example:

11. Christmas Moss

Christmas moss is another popular moss variety.

It’s named after Christmas because the texture of a healthy clump of Christmas moss looks like a Christmas tree!

Growing 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.

Stores 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. Moss 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!

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12. Floating Crystalwort

Floating Crystalwort is a plant I had not heard about before doing research for this page. I assume it’s quite rare, as I have never seen it in a store.

However, it can do great in an aquarium without substrate! Therefore it deserves a place on this list.

From what I’ve read, it has similar characteristics as moss. Many people attach this plant to driftwood, or use it as a carpeting plant.

The texture looks amazing. If you can get your hands on some Crystalwort I highly recommend giving it a try. Let me know how it works out for you!

13. Water Weeds (Elodea)

The next addition to the list is the beautiful and fast-growing plant called Elodea. More commonly known under the name “Water weeds“. The image above 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.

It grows quickly. Because it is such a quick-growing plant, it can take up a lot of nutrients in the tank. This can help battle algae if you struggle with them.

The way this plant propagates is by shooting new plants from the main stems. 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. Weigh them down with something like a piece of wood or rock.

This plant really is a fast-growing plant. It will probably do well when you first introduce it to an existing aquarium. However, if it used all the nutrients in the tank the rapid growth can come to a sudden stop.

This is what happened when I first added water weeds in my tank.

It’s at this point you need to ask yourself whether you’re willing to maintain a fast-growing plant. Instead, you can also switch to slower plants like the java fern, java moss or anubias.

14. Hornwort

hornwort close-up

This hardy plant is perfect for your aquarium. In the wild, it has managed to spread to every continent except for Antarctica. 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. This makes it 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.

Do you have a friend who has hornwort? Ask if you can have a piece. It will quickly grown in your own aquarium.

You’re able to grow this plant without additional CO2, but it can be challenging. All plants need CO2 and there is not as much in your aquarium as there is in the wild.

I would recommend injecting CO2 or just giving this plant a go and see what happens.

15. Cabomba

Look at this plant with the beautiful name Cabomba. 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. 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. When used as a floating plant it will grow faster compared to when planted in the substrate.

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

I 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.

16. Moneywort (Bacopa monnieri)

As you can see we’re properly in stem-plant domain now. And there are more coming because there are so many gorgeous stem plants out there.

At number 16 on the list we have moneywort, or Bacopa Monnieri.

This plant is amazing. If you can try it out, do it. Rub your fingers along the leaves and smell your fingers. You will find it has a weird but very nice and strong scent.

That’s because it’s actually a herb.

If this stem plant reaches the surface of the tank, it does not stop. It will keep growing outside of your tank. Overall, one of my favorite stem plants.

17. Brazilian Pennywort

Another plant that also has the tendency to keep growing once it reaches the surface is Brazilian Pennywort. I could not find a good image for this plant, but I have seen it in a friend’s aquarium.

It grows in a way I have seen no other plant grow. I’d recommend checking out some videos or finding some images of Pennywort.

This one for example:

18. Dwarf Ambulia

The aquarium on the image is my grandfather’s. Dwarf Ambulia is the lush green stem plant in the left/center. It’s an amazing plant.

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All stem plants are often rooted in substrate. As this is a list of plants that do not need substrate, I want to explain something. Stem plants take their nutrients straight from the aquarium water.

They do not rely on a root system.

Therefore, if you let them float in a tank, they grow. It does not look very nice though.

Instead, what I recommend, is to weight them down with something. You can use dedicated plant weights (such as these on Amazon), or tie them together and attach them to a rock.

19. Dwarf Hygro

A stem plant that does not limit itself to just stems: Hygrophila Polysperma. From experience I know that this plant grows all over the place. It shoots new branches out everywhere.

In the Netherlands this plant is know as Belgium Greenery (translate ofcourse). In my experience this is an easy plant that grows well without too much problems.

Bright lights is appreciated. Add enough fertilizer to keep up with the rapid growth. You’ll quickly have more Hygro than you’ll know what to do with.

20. Water Wisteria (Hygrophila difformis)

What should you know about water wisteria? If it starts doing well it grows to be huge.

Weigh the stems down if you don’t have substrate in your tank. Give them plenty of light and enough food and they will be happy.

I once recorded a 2 hour video of my clump of water wisteria and sped it up. The leaves are constantly moving! Such a weird experience. Overall, the leaves “close” when the lights are out and open back up once they are on.

21. Ludwigia Repens

Ludwigia repens is a popular stemplant. It’s beginner friendly and therefore can make many people happy.

There are some other varieties. In the video above they showcase ‘Rubin’ which is a red leaved variety.

Overall, there are many ludwigia variations that you can add to your tank. I can highly recommend them.

22. Rotala Rotundifolia

Rotala Rotundifolia, more commonly known as dwarf rotala, is a great stem plant! Also if you’re looking for plants that can grow in a tank without substrate.

Here is a video of Rotala Rotundifolia:

A tip to properly grow stem plants: take multiple stems and put them together like a bouquet.

This will make your tank look much more lush and densely planted.

23. Rotala Indica

There are various rotala variations. Rotala Indica is, I believe, an Indian variation.

I have grown rotala indica in one of my Dutch style aquascapes. On the picture above it is in the very center. Quite hard to see.

24. Ludwigia Arcuata

Honestly, the picture speaks for itself. Ludwigia Arcuata, an amazing looking plant.

Up to the day of writing, I have never grown Ludwigia Arcuata myself. From what I have read, and from my experience with delicate stem plants, it is best to add some CO2 to your tank.

This will really help grow all the plants.

25. 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. In my opinion that looks beautiful.

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

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.

There is only one thing to keep in mind. You should roll them over every time you do a water change so all sides of the ball get enough light to grow.

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
Cabomba image – Author:Piotr Kuczynski Licensed under: CC3.0 No changes made

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