10 Aquarium Plants You Can Actually Grow With African Cichlids (tried and tested!)

African Cichlids are one of the hardest groups of fish to keep with live aquarium plants. Most African Cichlids are omnivores, and a large number are pure herbivores, meaning plants are definitely on the menu.

Over the years I have read countless best-of lists, and they are usually just a random collection of plants or fish someone has put together.

Eating Daphnia
Eating Daphnia

In this article, I list the 10 plants I have had the most success growing in my African Cichlid tanks. This article is based on over 15 years of African Cichlid keeping.

The 10 Best Plants For An African Cichlid Tank

The list below is based on actual experience of keeping plants with African Cichlids. In my fish room right now I have tanks of Peacocks, Mbuna, Cyprichromis, Lamprologus, and Pseudotropheus all with plants growing in them.

Now, I will be the first to admit these are not high-end aquascapes, but any live plant growing in an African Cichlid tank will be absorbing excess nutrients from the water, including ammonia and nitrate.

  • Hornwort
  • Anubias Barteri
  • Java Fern
  • Amazon Frogbit
  • Cabomba
  • Vallisneria
  • Java Moss
  • Cryptocoryne Wendtii ‘Green’
  • Amazon Sword
  • Pothos


1. Hornwort

Hornwort is an extremely easy-to-grow stem plant that can be grown either rooted in the substrate or as a floating plant.

Hornwort naturally occurs in lakes, ponds, and very slow-flowing rivers and streams around the world. The long stems of this plant can grow to around 6″ to 12″ (15cm to 30cm) long and the leaves grow along the entire length.

This plant grows really, really fast which is part of the reason it works so well with African Cichlids. Even if the fish nibble it, it grows so fast they won’t even make a dent in it.

Hornwort can be grown either planted or floating, and in my experience, it does much better with African Cichlids when it is grown as a floating plant. I have found that the fish leave it alone when it is floating, whereas they dig it up when I plant it into the substrate.

Like many stem plants, Hornwort absorbs huge quantities of nitrates making it an ideal addition to any African Cichlid tank. I float large clumps in many of the sump filters in my fish room for exactly that reason.

Whilst Hornwort will never win any aquascaping awards, it will make the water in your African Cichlid tank cleaner and safer for the fish. In my experience, it also reduces the frequency of water changes I have to carry out.

One other benefit of Hornwort is that it is really easy to propagate. Once you have one piece, you should be able to make an almost endless supply. You can propagate Hornwort by cutting anywhere along the stem. I initially bought just 5 stems, and now I have them in nearly 20 African Cichlid tanks in my fish room.

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3 X Hornwort Bunches | Easy Low Light Aquarium Plants
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Last update on 2022-09-30 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API

2. Anubias Barteri

Anubias Barteri is one of the toughest plants in the hobby. Its broad, glossy leaves have an almost leather-like texture to them which, in my experience at least, African Cichlids do not like to eat.

I have Anubias Barteri growing in a number of my African Cichlid tanks, and the leaves are immaculate. They literally do not go anywhere near them.

This is a very slow-growing plant that originates from fast-flowing streams and rivers in Western Africa. Anubias Barteri really appreciates the minerals found in hard water, making it an ideal companion to African Cichlids, who themselves prefer to live in harder water.

Although slow-growing, Anubias Barteri is incredibly easy to propagate, meaning you only need to buy one pot of it, and within a couple of years you can fill multiple tanks with it.

Anubias Barteri does not want to be grown directly in the substrate but rather attached to rocks or pieces of wood. This plant needs the water to circulate around its rhizome and roots constantly, otherwise, it has a tendency to rot. In my own tanks, I tend to use superglue gel to attach it to small pieces of rock that I then insert into various locations around my tanks.

Providing Anubias Barteri is not planted into the substrate, it is an easy to grow plant that can tolerate a wide range of water parameters. It can even grow in low light conditions meaning you don’t have to spend a fortune on lighting for your African Cichlid tank.

One of the great benefits I have found growing Anubias Barteri in my African Cichlid tanks is that the large canopy created by the leaves provides the perfect hiding place for fry that the females have spat out.

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Greenpro Anubias Barteri Live Aquarium Plants Decoration for Aquatic Water Plants Freshwater Fish Tank
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Last update on 2022-09-30 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API

3. Java Fern

Looking around my fish room, I think I have more Java Fern growing in African Cichlid tanks than any other plants. I think I literally have it growing in every single tank that has an African Cichlid living in it.

Java Fern is a tough plant that likes to grow attached to wood or rocks. Much like Anubias Barteri, it does not like to be planted directly into the substrate. The fern-like leaves of this plant are highly variable in color and typically grow straight up from the rhizome.

Java Fern has proved itself a worthy contender for Best plant for an African Cichlid tank. Certainly in my experience, the fish leave it well alone and, providing it is well anchored to whatever it is growing on, Java Fern can survive for many years even with African Cichlids that are die-hard herbivores.

The leaves of Java Fern can grow to around 12″ (30cm) long and the rhizome typically grows horizontally rather than vertically as the stem of many other plants might. They also provide a stark contrast between other plant leaves if you find yourself using more than one plant on this list.

Personally, I like to attach large clumps of Java Fern to rocks using either superglue gel or pieces of fishing line. I can then insert these rocks around my rockscape. Adding Java Fern to African Cichlid tanks helps break up the often harsh, rocky landscapes that we create when will fill the tanks with sand and rock.

Much like with Anubias Barteri, large clumps of Java Fern provide the ideal nursery for baby fish that have left the safety of their mothers’ mouths.

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Greenpro Microsorum Pteropus Java Fern Tall Full Potted Live Aquarium Plants Decorations Freshwater Fish Tank
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Last update on 2022-09-30 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API

4. Amazon Frogbit

Amazon Frogbit is a true floating plant that multiplies incredibly quickly, covering the entire surface of an African Cichlid tank given the opportunity. The long trailing roots of this plant add a new dimension of interest and the fish seem to enjoy swimming between the roots, picking out pieces of uneaten food that have become entangled.

I normally choose to grow Amazon Frogbit with my smaller African Cichlids, as some of the larger specimens will actually eat these plants. I find my Peacocks don’t really touch Amazon Frogbit, but my larger Mbunas will happily eat it.

Amazon Frogbit, as its name suggests, comes from rivers and streams in South America where the water tends to be softer. However, this easy-to-grow plant is extremely adaptable and can adjust to a wide range of water parameters.

One major benefit Amazon Frogbit has over rooted aquarium plants that are anchored to the substrate is that it doesn’t find itself being dug up the whole time. African Cichlids, especially the males, are well known for their desire to dig, particularly when preparing to spawn.



If not grown in the main tank, Amazon Frogbit makes an excellent addition to a sump filter where it can be grown away from any fish that may want to eat it. Like so many floating plants, Amazon Frogbit is excellent at sucking nitrates out of the aquarium water, making it an ideal companion to an overstocked African Cichlid tank.

One added bonus of fast-growing floating plants like Amazon Frogbit is that it can quickly form a fairly thick mat across the surface of the tank which in turn reduces the amount of light getting into the tank, cutting down the amount of algae that grows on the aquarium glass, rocks, and decorations.

5. Cabomba

Cabomba is another stem plant that in my experience works best when grown as a floating plant. Much like the Hornwort at the top of this article, Cabomba is a hardy, fast-growing stem plant that can stand being nibbled by the African Cichlids.

This is a plant I have growing in multiple tanks, and although it does not look the prettiest, it does absorb lots of nitrates, making it an ideal plant to keep the water clean and help reduce the number of water changes I have to do.

Cabomba has a very similar structure to Hornwort, and it may be that the fish don’t enjoy eating the needle-like leaves or maybe it doesn’t taste nice to them. Either way, in my fish room at least, they seem to leave it alone.

Traditionally, Cabomba is sold as stems bunched together and the fish keeper plonks those stems into the gravel where the plant will take root and grow happily. However, in an African Cichlid tank, there is a good chance that any plant rooted in the substrate will be dug up in no time at all. As such, growing Cabomba as a floating plant is the best option.

Cabomba is an easy plant to propagate. If you want to create more plants, simply cut anyone of your existing stems anywhere along its length. By doing so you will automatically turn one plant into two.

When grown as a floating specimen, Cabomba quickly forms a dense mass of stems, leaves, and roots. These floating clumps of green provide an ideal place for baby fish to hide from adults that will almost certainly eat them. I grow a lot of floating Cabomba in my Yellow Lab breeding tanks. When the adults spit the fry, they typically make a beeline for the Cabomba where they stay, often for many weeks whilst they grew.

I breed a lot of Yellow Lab Cichlids, and I put a large part of my success down to the Cabomba.

6. Vallisneria

Vallisneria comes in a number of different forms. From the short, twisted Vallisneria Spiralis, which only grows to around 10″ (25cm) to the giant Jungle Vallisneria, which maxes out around 6′ (1.8m), there is a Vallisneria to suit every tank.

Over the years I have tried many different varieties of Vallisneria in my African Cichlid tanks, and the truth is they don’t seem to like eating any of them. No matter which variety you put with your African Cichlids, there is a good chance it will grow well.

However, I must add a caveat here. Vallisneria has to be rooted into the substrate, it can not grow as a flowing plant. This means we have to set the tank up in such a way that the fish can not dig the Vallisneria up. I have found the best way to protect the plant is to bury the roots deep into the substrate, then place rocks around the base of the plant, making it so the African Cichlids can not dig in the substrate adjacent to the plant.

This technique has worked well for me in numerous tanks and I use it with all rooted plants in my African Cichlid tanks.

Once the Vallisneria plants have had a chance to establish themselves, there is less chance the African Cichlids will dig them up. Vallisneria develops a strong root system that goes deep into the substrate looking for nutrients.

Until recently I had a 180-gallon (680 liters) tank that had a thick wall of Vallisenria all along the back of the tank. The bright colors of the male Peacocks looked stunning against the lime green curtain of Vallisneria.

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  • PROVIDES AMAZING ENVIRONMENT : Aquatic plants will produce oxygen and absorb carbon dioxide to enhance water quality in your aquarium community. Adding live plants not only beneficial for the natural ecosystem but also giving shelter and security place for your aquarium pets.
  • HIGH TECHNOLOGY : Our plants grown by using the latest technology and facility with digital controlled nursery to ensure that our plants are diseases pest snail and algae free.

Last update on 2022-09-30 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API



7. Java Moss

Java Moss is a fairly unique plant in that it doesn’t really have a root system. This plant is loved by aquascapers around the world because they can use it to create the illusion of bushes or miniature trees in their intricate aquascapes.

For African Cichlid keepers, however, Java Moss represents an easy-to-grow plant that is rarely eaten by even the most vegetarian African Cichlid.

As Java Moss has no root system to anchor it down, and it doesn’t really float as Amazon Frogbit does, it ends up growing as a mass that just sits on the substrate. This works to our advantage, especially when we keep Java Moss with African Cichlids that are just destructive. I keep a lot of Mbuna species that not only eat plants but will just destroy them because they can.

Java Moss can’t really be destroyed. The fish just end up pushing it around. Alternatively, the moss can be tied to rocks, pieces of wood, or other decorations within the tank.

Java Moss is a slow-growing plant that is easy to care for, grows well in hard water, and can be propagated by simply pulling some from the main bunch and adding it to another tank. Java Moss is also superb for African Cichlid breeding tanks as it forms the perfect place for the females to spit their fry. The babies can live within the moss for many weeks without fear of being eaten.

8. Cryptocoryne Wendtii ‘Green’

Cryptocoryne Wendtii ‘Green’ is a hardy, fast-growing plant whose leaves can be highly variable in color, ranging from rusty brown to bright green, even across a single plant.

Cryptocoryne Wendtii ‘Green’ is one of the most prolific plants in my fish room, quickly spreading throughout a tank by sending runners through the substrate. As a rooted planted, it will need protecting from digging fish until it is well established, but in my experience that doesn’t take long.

The strong root system on this plant allows the Cryptocoryne Wendtii ‘Green’ to get a good grip on the substrate and the roots expand out far and wide looking for nutrients. The leaves of Cryptocoryne Wendtii ‘Green’ can grow to around 12″ (30cm) long and are rarely eaten by African Cichlids.

One of the major benefits Cryptocoryne Wendtii ‘Green’ brings to an African Cichlids tank is its sponge-like ability to suck nitrates from the water. In my fish room, I have several large tanks that are filled with Cryptocoryne Wendtii ‘Green’ and even though they are all well overstocked with fish, I rarely carry out water changes thanks to this plant.

Cryptocoryne Wendtii ‘Green’ is an undemanding plant that will grow even in lower light levels and does not require CO2 injection. Providing it is given some fertilizer, either in liquid form or root tabs, it will grow well for you. Occasionally leaves will die back and need removing, but I find my African Cichlids are quick to break these weaker leaves off for me.

As the plant replicates itself so quickly it is the kind of plant you will buy 3 or 4 of today, then in 12 months, you will be giving it away as you have no more room for it.

9. Amazon Sword

Amazon Sword is another super tough plant that can stand up to the battering African Cichlids often give to live plants in their aquariums. The strong, long, sword-like leaves of this plant appear to be inedible to the African Cichlids who seem to pay little attention to them.

As the name Amazon Sword clearly suggests, this plant naturally occurs in South America where the waters tend to be softer and more acidic than our African Cichlid tanks. However, this is a highly adaptable plant that, in my experience at least, will thrive in the hard, mineral-rich aquariums with African Cichlids.

Amazon Swords have a strong root system that runs deep into the substrate looking for nutrients. For this plant to grow well it will need a good supply of root tabs buried around its growing area. To prevent the plant and its root tabs from being dug up, I would suggest you plant the Amazon Sword plants and the root tabs, then cover the whole area with rocks, creating a barrier between the fish and the roots. I have used this method with great success in a number of tanks with Peacocks, Mbuna, and many Yellow Lab Cichlids.

One word of caution when growing Amazon Sword plants. No matter how tough this plant is, it does have its nemesis. If you keep almost any member of the Plecostoms family in with your African Cichlids, do not plant Amazon Swords. Believe me, they will quickly shred the leaves. I added a number of Amazon Sword plants to a tank that had a group of Bristlenoe Plecos living in it, and they shredded every single plant within about 3 days!

Amazon Swords are another relatively quick-growing plant that is especially good at providing line of sight blocks which can help reduce aggression, especially in male-heavy African Cichlid setups.

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Last update on 2022-09-30 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API

10. Pothos

Pothos is a slightly unusual plant because it doesn’t actually grow in our aquariums. The way Pothos has been used for many, many years is by placing the roots in the aquarium and allowing the plant to grow out across the top of the fish tank and, if allowed, around the room.

Pothos is said to be one of the most effective plants at removing nitrates from the water. Its roots dangle into the water literally feeding off the waste from the fish.

Because Pothos is growing out of the water and in the air like terrestrial plants, it is not limited by its access to oxygen or CO2, meaning it can grow without restriction. The length a single stem of Pothos can grow to is almost unlimited. There are countless stories of fishkeepers having a single stem running around their entire rooms.

The roots of a mature Pothos plant form a thick mat inside the aquarium. Because there are no leaves in the actual water, Pothos is left alone even by the most destructive African Cichlids



Can You Grow Plants With African Cichlids?

Whenever I am giving fish-keeping talks at clubs around the country, one question I invariably get asked every time is Can I grow plants with my African Cichlids?. The answer is Yes, you can grow live aquarium plants with African Cichlids providing you choose the right varieties of plants and you plant them in a way to give the plants the best chance of survival.

African Cichlids are well-known plant destroyers, and you certainly would not want to keep them in a highly aquascaped tank. But choosing the right plants and planting them in the right way can lead to a truly stunning display. In many of my own African Cichlid tanks, the colors of the fish look outstanding against the deep greens of the plants.

Do African Cichlids Eat Plants?

Unfortunately, the answer to this one is yes, African Cichlids do eat plants, but that is why we have to choose the right varieties of plants before putting them into our African Cichlid tanks.

Do African Cichlids Eat Algae?

African Cichlids are well-known algae eaters. For many species, algae form a major part of their diet. Obviously, in the aquarium hobby, we supplement the algae with algae wafers and other commercially available foods that have a high portion of algae in their ingredients.

Do African Cichlids Eat Moss?

In my experience, whilst African Cichlids do seem to nibble at mosses like Java Moss, I wouldn’t say they actually eat it. I grow a lot of Java Moss in with my African Cichlids, especially in my breeding tanks, and it never seems to disappear, so they can’t be eating it that often!

Why Grow Plants With African Cichlids?

To my mind, there are three major advantages to growing live aquarium plants in our African Cichlid tanks.

Firstly, live aquarium plants absorb excess nutrients from the water column, and that includes ammonia and nitrates. Typically we keep our African Cichlids in overstocked tanks as a way to reduce aggression. When fish go to the bathroom, their waste is high in ammonia, which in turn becomes nitrates. Having live aquarium plants growing seriously reduces the quantity of ammonia and nitrate in the water.

The second major benefit is the reduction in bullying. Again, in our overstock African Cichlid tanks, bullying and aggression can be a problem. One way fish deal with this is to get away from the aggressor, and providing hiding spaces and line of sight blocks in the form of live plants is a great way to do this.

Finally, and in my fish room most importantly, live aquarium plants provide places for the baby fish to hide from hungry adults. Many of the African Cichlid species we keep in our aquariums choose to hold their eggs safely in their mouths until the eggs hatch and become free-swimming fish. At this point, they spit them out, typically just for another fish to come along and eat them.

By providing places for the baby fish to hide, the chances of the babies raising up into adult fish greatly increase.



In Conclusion

African Cichlids will eat plants. That is a fact. However, if we choose the right plant for the right place in the tank, we can grow live plants even with the most voracious herbivorous fish.

Live aquarium plants improve the water quality in our African Cichlid tanks and provide safety for baby fish or fish that are being bullied. I would recommend that every African Cichlid keepers find a way to grow live aquarium plants in their tanks.


About the Author

I’ve been keeping, breeding, and showing tropical fish for nearly 30 years. Over that time I’ve done it all! I’ve had great success and I’ve made some really foolish mistakes (like the time I bought an Asain Walking Catfish). Read more…
Richard James
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