19 Best Aquarium Plants to Reduce Nitrates

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Living plants make an excellent addition to any fish tank. Artistically arranged aquatic plants look beautiful and provide hiding places for fry and shy fish species. Living plants also take up nitrates from the water and give off oxygen during photosynthesis, helping to keep the environment safe and healthy for your fish.

Even better, you don’t need to be a green-fingered expert to grow plants in your fish tank, as there are plenty of easy-to-grow species that are ideal for beginners.

Read this guide to discover our favorite 19 aquarium plants that can reduce nitrate levels in your aquarium water.

What Is Nitrate And How Does It Get Into Your Aquarium?

Nitrogen Cycle Diagram

Nitrate is a chemical that’s produced by the beneficial bacteria in your filter media as a product of the Nitrogen Cycle. Even though it’s not good for your fish and the other living creatures in your fish tank, nitrate is actually part of a healthy, functioning ecosystem.

In the Nitrogen Cycle, the ammonia that’s given off by decomposing organic matter is converted into nitrite and nitrate by various species of bacteria. Ammonia and nitrite are potentially lethal for fish and levels should always be at zero. However, nitrates are less harmful and should ideally be at levels of 20ppm or less.

To keep the levels of nitrates in the water to a minimum, you must carry out partial water changes each week, replacing the dirty water with clean, dechlorinated water. However, aquatic plants naturally remove nitrates from your aquarium by using the chemicals as a kind of fertilizer.

So, in theory, you can speed upcycling in a new aquarium by filling it with plants in a process called “silent cycling.”

How Do Your Aquarium Plants Use Nitrates?

Aquarium plants take up nitrates and other nitrogen compounds, including ammonia and nitrite from the water.

Plants can metabolize those substances, using them as building blocks to create organic molecules. That’s excellent news for your fish and invertebrates, as those same compounds are extremely harmful to them, especially if they’re allowed to accumulate in the water.

Plants must be healthy to absorb nitrate and thrive, and they also need at least eight to ten hours of light every day. Different species of plants need different levels of light, so always double-check that your aquarium lighting unit fulfills the requirements of the plants you want before you add them to your setup. 

Some plants can survive without additional supplementation. However, others need a helping hand in the form of carbon dioxide and liquid or tablet fertilizer supplements, without which the plants won’t thrive or be able to absorb nitrates.

Can Plants Add Nitrogen Compounds To Your Aquarium?

For your plants to remove nitrates efficiently from your fish tank, you need to look after them. So, regular trimming is required to remove dead and shed leaves, trim broken stems, and you also need to take out any plants that die.

If you leave dead plant material in the tank, it will quickly decompose, adding more ammonia and nitrite to the water and compromising the water quality.

What Makes The Best Nitrate Eating Plants?

Basically, plants that grow very quickly have the highest demand for nitrate and phosphate, as well as other nutrients that the plants can derive from the water column.

Plants use nitrates for healthy, vigorous leaf growth. So, the more leaves your plants put out and the more vigorous their growth rate, the more nitrates the plants will use. 

Column Feeders vs. Root Feeders

Some plant species extract the nutrients they need directly from the water column. Those plants include floating species and those that can be fixed to driftwood or rocks. Those plants are called column feeders, extracting nutrients via rhizomes

Root feeders absorb the nutrition they need directly from the substrate. If you have root feeders in your aquarium, you’ll need to use a gravel substrate to keep the plants anchored, as well as allowing the free flow of water through the gravel to the plant’s root system. 

Of the two, column feeders are the best choice for keeping nitrate levels down because they extract the nutrients they need directly from the water column.

Other Ways To Reduce Nitrates In The Aquarium

As well as using plants for nitrate reduction in your fish tank, there are a few other practical ways to do that, including:

  • Carrying out regular partial water changes is extremely effective at reducing nitrate levels in the water and should form part of your regular maintenance regime.
  • When performing the water changes, vacuum the aquarium substrate thoroughly to remove decomposing organic matter before it pollutes your water.
  • When performing the water changes, vacuum the aquarium substrate thoroughly to remove decomposing organic matter before it pollutes your waDon’t overfeed your fish! Overfeeding can leave uneaten food decomposing in the tank, producing lots of ammonia that’s quickly processed into nitrites and nitrate. Also, the more food your fish eat, the more waste they produce, adding to the burden on your biological filter and contributing to the build-up of toxins.
  • Be sure to rinse your filter media in tank water each month. That removes solid waste particles that are trapped in the media, which will decompose, eventually ending up as nitrates in the water. Remember to change the filter media in line with the manufacturer’s recommendations to ensure that the filtration system remains efficient.

19 Best Aquarium Plants To Reduce Nitrates

Now, let’s get into our list of the 19 best aquatic plants to reduce nitrates in the freshwater aquarium. You can buy all these plants at good fish stores and online.

1. Marimo Moss Ball

japanese marimo mossball green algae in glass of water
  • Full name: Aegagropila linnaei
  • Care difficulty: Easy
  • Light Level: Low to medium

Marimo Moss Balls are a hugely popular aquarium favorite with hobbyists. 

In fact, these weird green spheres are not plants at all, but a species of algae. The algae grow on lake beds, where the action of the water’s gentle flow shapes them into their characteristic round shape.

Marimo Moss does well in a low-light setup with cool water, although they can also live in tropical tanks.

2. Amazon Frogbit

Amazon Frogbit
Image Source : flickr.com
  • Full name: Limnobium laevigatum
  • Care difficulty: Easy
  • Light Level: Low to High

Amazon Frogbit is a super-easy surface-growing aquatic plant that won’t take over your tank as some similar plants do. Frogbit produces dangling roots that trail down from the surface to create perfect hiding places for fry and timid fish species.

You can keep Frogbit under control by using a plastic tubing ring. 

3. Hornwort

Ceratophyllum demersum (inflorescence)
Image Source: commons.wikimedia.org
  • Full name: Ceratophyllum demersum
  • Care difficulty: Easy
  • Light Level: Low to High

Hornwort is tolerant of pretty much any water temperature since it can be found growing on every continent except Antarctica.

There are over 300 different species of Hornwort to choose from. The plant can grow in the substrate or free-floating on the water surface. This is a tall plant that can touch the water surface if grown rooted in the substrate.

Hornwort is a very easy plant to look after but it does have a habit of shedding its bristle-like leaves, making a mess in the tank, and sometimes clogging filter inlets.

4. Dwarf Hairgrass

Green Dwarf Hairgrass in the aquarium
  • Full name: Eleocharis Parvula
  • Care difficulty: Easy
  • Light Level: Medium to High

Dwarf Hairgrass is a hardy, easy-to-grow plant that grows quickly, covering the substrate in a lush, grassy green carpet up to 6 inches high.

There are two species of Dwarf Hairgrass, Eleocharis acicularis and Eleocharis parvula, both of which can be grown in the aquarium.

5. Water Wisteria

Water Wisteria
  • Full name: Hygrophila Difformis
  • Care difficulty: Easy
  • Light Level: Medium

The tropical aquatic plant, Water Wisteria is a member of the Acanthaceae family.

The plant is very easy to grow and is robust enough to be able to handle most rookie mistakes. You don’t need to fertilize the plant or provide it with special lighting. This beautiful bright green plant can be grown as a carpet plant or free-floating on the surface.

6. Dwarf Water Lettuce

Dwarf Water Lettuce
Image Source : instagram.com
  • Full name: Pistia stratioes
  • Care difficulty: Easy to Moderate
  • Light Level: Medium

Dwarf Water lettuce is thought to be native to Africa. This beautiful surface plant is a member of the arum family, which are commonly seen in many garden ponds.

The plant is pretty easy to grow and propagates rapidly. However, although this is a pretty tough plant, it does demand the right conditions and care to thrive.

7. Java Fern

Java Fern Red (Microsorum pteropus)
  • Full name: Microsorum Pteropus
  • Care difficulty: Easy
  • Light Level: Low to Moderate

Java Fern is an extremely popular, beginner-friendly plant that’s easy to grow, provided that the rhizome is kept above the substrate.

You can grow these plants rooted in the substrate or attached to driftwood, rocks, and ornaments with fishing line or aquascaping twine. Java Fern is quite slow-growing, producing baby plants occasionally on its leaves. Simply remove the new plants and attach them to any hard surface in the aquarium.

8. Anubias Barteri

Anubias Barteri
Image Source : flickr.com
  • Full name: Anubias barteri
  • Care difficulty: Easy
  • Light Level: Low to High

Anubias barteri is ideal for use in a small tank, as it doesn’t get too big, reaching just seven inches in height. Also, the plant is very easy to care for and slow-growing, making it ideal for beginners. 

The plant is also very handy for setups containing snails and fish species that like to nibble on plant leaves, as Anubias has tough, bitter leaves. You can grow the plant in the substrate or attached to rocks and wood. To propagate the plant, simply split the rhizomes, and fix the baby plants to a piece of driftwood or to a rock.

9. Water Sprite

3 Water Sprite (Ceratopteris Thalictroides) Live Aquarium Stem Plant
  • Full name: Ceratopteris thalictroides
  • Care difficulty: Easy
  • Light Level: Medium

Water Sprite is also sometimes called Water Fern, Indian Water Fern, and Oriental Water Fern. The plant is very versatile and can be grown in the substrate or free-floating in the water.

The plant is very fast-growing, thrives in a variety of different environments, and is simple to cultivate, so it’s ideal for a beginner. You can also grow Water Sprite in slightly brackish water, although it’s really a freshwater plant.

10. Java Moss

Java Moss Live Aquarium Beginner Plant Tank
  • Full name: Taxiphyllum Barbieri
  • Care difficulty: Easy
  • Light Level: Low to moderate

Java Moss comes from South East Asia and is incredibly popular with hobbyists, as it’s easy to care for and extremely attractive, too.

You can grow the plant in the substrate as a carpet plant or fixed to driftwood. You can also grow this beautiful bright green moss as a free-floating plant on the surface of the water. 

11. Duckweed

Duckweed aquarium plant.
  • Full name: Lemna minor
  • Care difficulty: Easy
  • Light Level: Low to Medium

Duckweed sucks up excess nitrates from the water like a sponge! This plant is extremely vigorous and quick-growing, rapidly covering the surface of the water.

Although the plant provides the perfect hiding place for small fish and fry, it can be a pain because it is capable of growing to three times its original size in just one day! So, you’ll need to contain the Duckweed in a ring of plastic tubing set on the surface so that it doesn’t overrun your tank.

12. Pothos

Home and garden decoration of golden pothos in the bathroom
  • Full name: Epipremnum aureum
  • Care difficulty: Easy
  • Light Level: Medium

Pothos is actually better known as a houseplant. However, you can grow the plant in water, too, and it’s often seen in terrariums.

Pothos plants are toxic, so don’t put the cuttings directly into the fish tank. First, you need to root the cuttings in water in a separate container. Once the plant’s wound has healed, it’s safe to put the plant into your aquarium. These plants are extremely greedy, quickly soaking up any available nitrates in the water and helping to keep your tank healthy for your fish.

13. Water Spangles

Water Spangles - little leaves of water fern floating on water surface at swamp
  • Full name: Salvinia minima
  • Care difficulty: Easy
  • Light Level: Medium

Water Spangles is a species of free-floating aquatic fern that’s become incredibly popular in the hobby thanks to its rapid growth rate, hardiness, ease of care, and adaptability. 

Not only does the plant absorb nitrates from the water, but it also removes heavy metals, including copper, very efficiently. This beautiful plant quickly forms networks of submersed, filamentous leaves that make the perfect hideout for fish fry and sites for bubble nests.

14. Tall Hairgrass

Potted Tall Hairgrass
  • Full name: Eleocharis montevidensis
  • Care difficulty: Easy
  • Light Level: Medium to High

Tall Hairgrass is a carpet plant that can grow to reach around 10 inches tall. Although it’s easy to grow, you do need to trim the plant to encourage it to spread out rather than grow upward.

The main problem with this plant is that it can make a mess in your tank, shedding its long, grass-like leaves when you’re carrying out routine maintenance. However, Tall Hairgrass is pretty voracious when it comes to absorbing nutrients from the water.  

15. Amazon Sword

Amazon Sword Paniculatus Potted Live Aquarium Plants
  • Full name: Echinodorus bleheri
  • Care difficulty: Easy
  • Light Level: Medium

Amazon Sword is just about the most popular aquarium plant in the hobby, and it’s perfect for a medium to large-sized aquarium. 

The plants produce beautiful broad green leaves that are ideal for bettas to relax on, and the deep root system stops the plant from being easily uprooted. Amazon Sword is easy to care for and is simple to propagate. All you do is nip new plants from the underground flowering stems and plant them in the substrate.

16. Mainam Hygrophila Salicifolia Sp. Narrow Leaf

Mainam Hygrophila Salicifolia
  • Full name: Mainam Hygrophila Salicifolia
  • Care difficulty: Easy to Moderate
  • Light Level: Medium

Hygrophila is also known as Common Swamp Weed. This beautiful flowering plant is a member of the acanthus family, and there are between 80 to 100 species of Hygrophila, some of which are aquatic. 

These plants are very hardy and easy to grow, making them ideal for a beginner’s setup. Also, the plants use up lots of nitrates, helping to keep the tank healthy and safe for your fish. 

17. Anubias Nana Petite

anubias nana
Image Source: flickr.com
  • Full name: Anubias Nana Petite
  • Care difficulty: Easy
  • Light Level: Medium

Anubias nana petite is a very popular choice of aquarium plant that’s readily available and inexpensive to buy.

These plants have small, vibrant green leaves that make this a very useful foreground specimen, and their undemanding nature makes Anubias ideal for beginners and experienced aquarists alike.

Anubias nana petite is an epiphyte. Epiphytes can grow on other plants, absorbing moisture and nutrients without harming the host plant.

18. Chaetomorpha

1/2 Cup Plus 500 Live Amphipods Chaetomorpha Macro Algae
  • Full name: Chaetomorpha
  • Care difficulty: Easy
  • Light Level: Low to High

Chaetomorpha is also known as spaghetti algae. 

These plants are generally used in refugiums to grow a thick bed of macroalgae. Chaetomorpha creates vital habitat for pods and other microcrustaceans, as well as having ornamental uses. 

However, the main use of Chaetomorpha is to absorb excess nitrates and phosphates from the aquarium water. The nutrients are removed from the system when the algae are harvested and thrown away.

19. Micro Sword

Micro Sword on aquarium gravel
  • Full name: Lilaeopsis brasiliensis
  • Care difficulty: Easy
  • Light Level: Low to High

When provided with optimal conditions, micro Sword is a fast-growing plant, rapidly forming a thick carpet over the substrate.

The plant has brilliant green, grass-like leaves that quickly establish a colony where spawning fish can lay their eggs and fry can shelter. You’ll need to keep on top of pruning the plant so that it doesn’t invade other plants in your setup. You can use the clippings to propagate new plants simply by planting them in the substrate.

In Conclusion

Did you enjoy our guide to using living plants to reduce nitrates in your fish tank? If you did, remember to share!

Living plants extract nitrates directly from the water to use as nutrients. Fast-growing, column-feeding plant species are the most efficient at extracting nitrates from the water, so focus on choosing those for your aquarium.

What aquatic plants do you prefer and why? Tell us in the comments section below.

Alison Page has been an avid fish keeper for over 35 years and has owned many different species of freshwater tropical fish including bettas. Currently Alison has two large freshwater tanks. The first tank has two huge fancy goldfish who are almost ten years old and still looking as good as ever. In the other, she has a happy community of tiger barbs, green tiger barbs, corydoras catfish, platys, and mollies.

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