Although fish are usually the main attraction in the average aquarium, plants undoubtedly play a huge role in creating an aesthetically pleasing display tank, and in the case of Dutch aquaria they are the main focal point.
The initial question the start-up fish keeper will face is real or artificial? For me the answer has always been real but I will outline to pros and cons of both below.
Artificial plants can be as varied as their real counterparts; varying from cheaper (and less realistic) plastic plants to the more expensive and realistic silk alternatives. Although I personally prefer real plants there are undeniable advantages to artificial plants
- They can’t die – an obvious one but a significant one. Even if well cared for it is inevitable that real aquarium plants can and will die and will need replacing. Even healthy plants will drop leaves which can be unsightly and will decay if left in the aquarium.
- They have no light/CO2/nutrient requirements – real plants have variable requirements for what they need to remain healthy and grow. Like fish, some plants are more demanding than others but artificial plants have no requirements and will look just as good no matter what conditions you provide them with.
- They can be cleaned and reused – Should algae grow on your artificial plants, you can simply clean them and reuse!
- Effectively a one off cost – once you have made the initial outlay that is essentially it until you decide to replace them or upgrade them.
Most of the negatives of artificial plants are essentially the positive aspect of real plants, so rather than being negative I will focus on the benefits of real plants!
- They look more natural – because the are! Although some artificial plants can be very realistic, in my opinion you cannot beat the appearance of healthy, real plants.
- They grow and mature – when first planted they may appear separate entities however given time and correct care the plants will grow and fill the gaps and create a more natural aquascape – some may even flower! Certain plants may even grow so well that you can take cuttings and spread the planting out, essentially giving you free plants.
- They help to minimise algae growth – algae have the same requirements as aquatic plants; by having real plants in your aquarium these will essentially outcompete the algae and restrict the growth of unwanted algae.
- They can improve water quality – Live plants will absorb nitrate, nitrate, ammonia and phosphorus and use it to grow, preventing it was building up in the water where it can have detrimental effect on fish health. Live plants also photosynthesise during the day, increasing the oxygen content of the water and removing carbon dioxide.
- Food supply – Live plants provide a supplementary food source to the fish and other inhabitants of your tank.
Unfortunately real plants aren’t without their problems!
- Plants seen for sale will usually be labelled according to their level of care required. If, like me, the fish are your main interest and the focus of most of your effort, you will probably struggle to keep anything more difficult than “beginner” or “easy” alive; I’ve even struggled with some of those!
- Linked to the point above, constantly replacing plants gets expensive. It also means the plants never establish so you will never see them at their best.
- If you want to attempt to keep a large number of plants, or want to keep more challenging plants you will need to consider a CO2 injection system – plants require carbon dioxide to grow (photosynthesis takes in CO2) and there simply may not be enough in your aquarium for a large number of plants or plants with high demand. Nearly all plants will benefit from additional CO2, so it may seem like a good idea to fit every tank with a CO2 system, however more CO2 in the water mean less oxygen, and less oxygen will present problems in a tank well stocked with fish – particularly overnight when the plants stop photosynthesising and start respiring which can lead to a spike in CO2 which could suffocate your fish. Tanks with CO2 injection are usually lightly stocked with small fish as the plants are the focal point.
- They can start to look scruffy if they are failing to thrive and leaves start dying.
- They can be decimated by certain snails and fish and essentially become expensive food – this can be avoided by carefully choosing plant species.
- Adding live plants is probably the primary method of intruding pest snails to your aquarium.
These are in no way exhaustive lists, just the main points that came to mind but to summarise; personally I would always take real plants over artificial ones, but ultimately it comes down to personal preference and how much you’re willing to put into keeping your plants alive and in good shape. Artificial plants can certainly be a good choice in tanks that would otherwise struggle to maintain plants for whatever reason, or to add a bit of something to a tank otherwise focussed on fish or invertebrates that would destroy any real plants added.