13 Best Aquarium Plants For Sand (with pictures) – Updated for 2022

Sand is notoriously difficult to grow aquarium plants in, but it just looks so good! This is what has driven me to experiment with growing as many different aquatic plants as I can to see which grow the best in the sand.

The problem plants have when they are grown in sand, is that the grains of the sand compact so tightly together. Plant roots require access to oxygen and nutrients.

In gravel this isn’t a problem because there are large gaps between individual pieces of gravel that allow water to circulate, all be it at an almost microscopic level. Sand particles compact much closer together, seriously reducing the ability of water to circulate. Essentially plant roots starve, leading to the death of the plant.

To successfully grow plants in sand, we need to find plants that can cope with the reduced water circulation around their roots. In this article, I look at 13 plants that I have successfully grown in sand.

Eating Daphnia
Eating Daphnia

Best Aquarium Plants For Growing in Sand

  • Amazon Swords
  • Cryptocoryne Wendtii ‘Tropica’
  • Java Moss
  • Vallisneria
  • Anacharis/Elodea
  • Java Fern
  • Anubias Barteri
  • Hornwort
  • Dwarf Sagittaria
  • Cabomba
  • Cryptocoryne Wendtii ‘Green’
  • Water Wisteria
  • Dwarf Water Lettuce


1. Amazon Sword

I have started my list with the well-known Amazon Sword plant because it is probably the easier plant to grow in a sandy substrate. Amazon Swords have large, robust root systems that can penetrate deep into the substrate in search of nutrients.

I grow a lot of Amazon Sword plants in my African Cichlid tanks which invariably have a sandy substrate.

Amazon Swords are tall plants that can easily grow to around 20″ (50cm) tall. The long, bright green leaves typically start off narrow, becoming wider towards the middle of the leaf before tapering off towards the tip.

When planted in a group, Amazon Sword plants can make a dense jungle of leaves, providing cover for both timid fish and newborn babies that require cover to prevent adult fish from eating them.

Amazon Swords are hungry plants that require access to lots of nutrients. In my experience, Amazon Swords do best when plenty of root tab fertilizer capsules are buried around their roots. They also take in a large number of nutrients directly from the water column, so a liquid fertilizer should be added weekly too.

This is an easy-to-grow plant that does not require high lighting. In my own fish room, I grow lots of Amazon Swords using Fluval Aquasky lights, which are very budget-friendly. Amazon Sword plants also do not need CO2 injection to grow well. They are a very low-maintenance plant.

I tend to use Amazon Sword as background plants due to their tall nature, but they also look great when a bunch of them are used to fill in a corner of the tank.

Amazon Sword plants propagate themselves by sending out runners which will have daughter plants growing on them. Once these miniature Amazon Sword plants begin to develop roots, they too can be planted into the sand.

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2. Cryptocoryne Wendtii ‘Tropica’

Cryptocoryne Wendtii ‘Tropica’ is another plant that grows really well, even when planted in sand. This undemanding plant produces stunning bronze-colored leaves that have an almost hammered texture to them. Cryptocoryne wendtii ‘Tropica’ offers an amazing contrast when planted against other traditional aquarium plants.

Growing to around 8″ (20cm), this plant is usually used in the midground of a planted aquarium.

Cryptocoryne wendtii ‘Tropica’ grows well, even in lower light aquariums, and does not require CO2 injection. However, the stronger the light, the darker the leaves become.

I have this plant growing in a couple of different tanks that have sandy substrates, and in my experience, it grows just as well as it does in my tanks that use gravel as a substrate.

This plant originates from Sri Lanka in South Asia, where it naturally grows in mineral-rich waters, making it an ideal plant for growing in harder water. Typically, when we use sand as a substrate, especially if it contains a lot of crushed coral, the water will be higher in minerals, creating ideal conditions for Cryptocoryne Wendtii ‘Tropica’.

Cryptocoryne Wendtii ‘Tropica’ is a heavy root feeder, so when grown in sand (which offers no nutrients to the plants) it will require lots of root tab fertilizer capsules. This plant also benefits from the regular addition of liquid fertilizer, ideally added to the water once a week.

Cryptocoryne Wendtii ‘Tropica’ quickly propagates by sending runners out under the sand. New plants will crop up all over the aquarium, leading to a thick mass of Cryptocoryne wendtii ‘Tropica’ that always looks impressive.



3. Java Moss

I have added Java Moss to my list of plants that can be grown in sand, although technically Java Moss doesn’t actually attach itself to the substrate, so it can be grown with any substrate.

Java Moss is an incredibly popular plant that is highly sought after by both fish breeders and aquascapers. Fish breeders love this plant so much because a large clump of Java Moss provides the perfect place for egg-laying fish to lay their eggs, and the babies of livebearing fish to hide after birth.

Java Moss is a really easy plant to grow. Essentially, keep it wet and give it some light and it will grow. This plant requires little in the way of fertilizer, CO2, or even regular maintenance.

As Java Moss does not have a root structure to hold it in place, it can either be grown as a free-floating bundle, which usually just sits on the substrate, or it can be tied to rocks or pieces of driftwood using twine or fishing line. High-end aquascapers use Java Moss to create miniature trees and bushes in their aquascapes.

Java Moss is very undemanding. It is incredibly hardy and will cope with pretty much any water parameters you throw at it. In my own fish room, I keep Java Moss in a tank with Fancy Goldfish, who are kept at around 64°F (18°C) as well as in my Discus tanks which are closer to 86°F (30°C) and pretty much everything in between.

4. Vallisneria

Vallisneria is the plant everyone recommends for growing in sand, and for good reason. Vallisneria grows really well in sand. It is probably the perfect plant to grow if you have a sandy substrate.

There are a number of different forms of Vallisneria available in the hobby, and all of them grow just as well in sand. From Vallisneria spiralis with its twisted, spiral-like leaves that grow to around 8″ (10cm) or Jungle Vallisneria which maxes out at around 6′ (1.83m), there is a Vallisneria to suit every tank.

I mainly grow regular Vallisneria, which grows to 3′ (91cm) tall, but can be kept shorter with regular trimming. This plant produces bright green, long, slender leaves that resemble tall grass.

Vallisneria is an undemanding plant that is usually grown as a background plant, often used to form a thick wall of green. It likes to grow in water which is around 68°F to 82°F (20°C to 27.5°C) and prefers low to moderate lighting. Vallisneria does benefit from CO2 injection, but it is not essential. It still grows really well without added CO2.

This is a moderately fast-growing plant that benefits from the addition of both liquid fertilizer and root tabs. Vallisneria plants that receive regular fertilizer will grow faster and stronger than those that do not.

I currently grow Vallisneria with a wide range of fish from Fancy Goldfish to Discus, with almost everything in between. I also grow Vallisneria in my African Cichlid tanks which have sand as their substrate.

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5. Anacharis/Elodea

Anacharis, which is often also sold under the name Elodea, is a plant that is so easy to grow that it is often just called pond weed!

This fast-growing stem plant can be grown either planted directly into the sand or left as a floating plant. The bright green stems of this plant are relatively thick with tiny leaves growing up all sides for its entire length.

As is typical of stem plants, Anacharis can be propagated by simply cutting anywhere along its stem, turning one plant into two. After cutting the new stem can be planted directly into the sand where it will develop roots. This is a fast-growing plant that requires trimming on a regular basis to keep it under control.

Anacharis is an incredibly adaptable plant, which was traditionally only ever grown in unheated goldfish tanks. In recent times it has become appreciated by tropical fish keepers too. This plant will happily live in water anywhere from 55°F and 82°F (12.5°C and 27.5°C). I also have it growing in my outdoor ponds where it survives all year round, even when the surface of the pond has ice across it.

Anacharis grows well regardless of how much light it receives, what temperature it is kept in, and whether or not it receives fertilizer or CO2. It is the ultimate low-tech plant that will survive in almost any condition.



6. Java Fern

Java Fern works so well for sand because it doesn’t actually grow in the sand, but rather grows attached to rocks, wood, or other decorations within the aquarium. If Java Fern is planted directly into the sand, or any other substrate, the rhizome will rot, leading to the plant dying.

Java Fern, which goes by the scientific name Leptochilus pteropus, has been one of the most popular plants in the freshwater fishkeeping hobby for many years. This highly variable fern-like plant is famed for its ease of growth, unique leaf structure, and unusual way in which it anchors itself to rocks, wood, and decorations in the tank.

This is a tough plant that can withstand even the most destructive of fish. In my own fish room, I grow Java Fern with Fancy Goldfish, Common Goldfish, and African Cichlids. It is practically bulletproof.

Java Fern is an incredibly forgiving plant, which makes it ideal for those who are new to growing aquarium plants.

Like many other plants on this list, Java Fern grows well even under low lights and does not require a great deal in the way of fertilizer or additional CO2. The tough, dark green, fern-like leaves of Java Fern grow to around 12″ (30cm) long, extending from a stem that runs horizontally rather than vertically

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7. Anubias Barteri

There are many different forms of Anubias available in local fish stores. In my experience, Anubias Barteri is the finest one. Much like Java Fern, Anubias Barteri works really well in an aquarium with a sandy substrate because it grows attached to wood or rocks.

Anubias Barteri is a slow-growing plant that has thick, glossy, dark green leaves which can add dramatic contrast when grown with other aquatic plants. The rhizome of Anubias Barteri attaches itself to rock or wood using strong roots.

Not only does Anubias Barteri grow in low light, but it will also grow even if overshadowed by larger plants. This plant requires little in the way of additional fertilizer, although in my experience it does grow stronger when a liquid fertilizer is added weekly.

Anubias Bartei is usually grown either as a foreground or midground plant. It requires little in the way of regular maintenance, with perhaps just the odd leaf needing removing after turning yellow.

This is another plant that I have found grows well in a number of different aquarium setups. I currently have it growing with African Cichlids as well as some boisterous South American Cichlids including a pair of Oscars.

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8. Hornwort

Hornwort is a tough old plant that grows well in pretty much any substrate you choose to grow it in, including sand. I grow a lot of Hornwort in my African Cichlid tanks, all of which have sand as the substrate.

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.

Whilst Hornwort will never win any aquascaping awards, it will make the water in your aquarium cleaner and safer for the fish thanks to its ability to absorb huge amounts of ammonia and nitrates. In my experience, it also reduces the frequency of water changes I have to carry out.

Hornwort is another easy to propagate plant. To increase the number of Hornwort plants you have, simply cut anywhere along the stem using a sharp pair of scissors. Insert the stem of the newly cut plant into the sand and the roots will quickly grow.

Hornwort does not require any special lighting and it grows well even without added fertilizer or CO2 injection.



9. Dwarf Sagittaria

Dwarf Sagittaria, which is sometimes just called Dwarf Sag, is an easy-to-grow carpeting plant that forms a dense, grass-like carpet across the bottom of your aquarium. Dwarf Sagittaria is especially suited to growing in the sand because it likes to push runners out as a way to propagate itself.

Over the years I have grown many Dwarf Sagittaria carpets across the front of aquascapes.

Providing Dwarf Sagittaria is given at least moderate lighting it will grow well. It usually grows to around 4″ to 6″ (10cm to 15cm) tall, but can form very thick clumps, especially when given access to high lighting. Most of my tanks with Dwarf Sagittaria growing run on Fluval Aquasky light, which is considered a moderate light.

In my experience, the ideal temperate range for Dwarf Sagattria is between 68°F and 82°F (20°C and 27°C), although I know fishkeepers who keep their Dwarf Sagittaria in cooler water even than 68°F. This plant is also happy growing in any pH from 6.0 to 8.0 and it grows equally well in hard or soft water.

10. Cabomba

Cabomba is an incredibly easy-to-grow stem plant that traditionally is planted directly into the sand, but it also grows really well as a floating plant. This plant is ideal to use in a breeding tank and works really well to keep the babies of livebearers like Mollies, Platies, and Swordtails away from their predatory parents.

I have grown Cabomba in aquariums with a sandy substrate for as long as I can remember. It is possibly the first plant I ever grew.

The stems of Cabomba are long and thin with the feather-like foliage coming off at regular intervals from root to tip.

Cabomba does not require CO2 injection to grow well, and although it doesn’t absolutely need additional fertilizer, it grows faster and denser when grown with additional liquid fertilizer.

This plant does like moderate light which it usually gets plenty of when grown as a floating plant, however, the mass of stems and foliage should be rotated occasionally otherwise the stems at the bottom of the pile may become shaded out by those stems above them, leading to the bottom stems dying off.

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11. Cryptocoryne Wendtii ‘Green’

Cryptocoryne Wendtii ‘Green’ is another easy-to-grow plant and is the second member of the Cryptocoryne family to make my list of best plants to grow in sand.

This is one of my favorite plants to grow in sand. The photo above shows one of my 155-gallon (600 liters) tanks that is planted exclusively with Cryptocoryne Wendtii ‘Green’. The leaves can be highly variable in color, even across an individual plant.

Growing to around 12″ (30cm) high, this plant is happily growing even in low light aquariums. As it grows the plants send runners out through the sand, with new plants poking their heads up through the sand about 4″ (10cm) from the mother plant.

Whilst the leaves of Cryptocoryne Wendtii ‘Green’ are brighter and green with the addition of aquarium fertilizer, this plant does well even if just left to grow without fertilizer or CO2 injection.

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12. Water Wisteria

Water Wisteria Is one of the easiest stem plants to grow in sand. This plant has a strong root system that will stretch through the sand in search of nutrients. Water Wisteria is a hungry water column feeder, which means it will happily draw nutrients directly from the water column once it realizes the sand offers it no nutrients.

Water Wisteria grows fast and dense, creating both hiding places for newborn fish and line of sight blocks which allows fish that are being bullied to get away from their aggressor.

Water Wisteria is not too demanding on light, with a low to moderate light fitting being preferred. It also does not require CO2 injection to grow well. This plant is easily propagated. Simply cut anywhere along its stem, although ideally just above a leaf, and plant the new stem directly into the sand. Roots will quickly form and the new plant will grow.

Over the years I have come to realize that Water Wisteria is best grown in larger tanks due to its rapid growth. Personally, I wouldn’t keep it in anything smaller than a 20-gallon (78 liters) otherwise very frequent trimming will be required. Be aware that Water Wisteria can and will grow out of the water, which looks amazing in the right setting.

In my experience, Water Wisteria does benefit from the addition of liquid fertilizer. When grown with liquid fertilizer the leaves look brighter and the plant looks generally healthier.

Water Wisteria is frequently confused with Water Sprite, which at first glance look identical, although there are distinctive differences.

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13. Dwarf Water Lettuce

OK, so on my last plant I have cheated a little because Dwarf Water Lettuce is a floating plant, and as such it doesn’t care what substrate you are using. Dwarf Water Lettuce does however grow well in mineral-rich water, and aquarium sand does often add minerals to the water.

Dwarf Water lettuce is a light green plant whose waxy leaves actually cause it to sit on the water surface rather than float in the water.

This plant grows really quickly, and left untamed it creates a thick mat of leaves and roots on the surface of your aquarium, reducing the amount of light that penetrates down to the sand. This can help with the major problem sand often suffers from, which is algae growth.

Because the leaves of Dwarf Water Lettuce are sitting on the water rather than floating in it, they have access to unlimited CO2 from the air, meaning this plant does not need CO2 injected into the aquarium. Dwarf Water Lettuce does benefit from the addition of liquid fertilizer into the aquarium.

Due to its fast-growing nature, Dwarf Water Lettuce sucks up vast quantities of nitrates from the aquarium water, making the water cleaner and safer for the fish that live in it.

As Dwarf Water Lettuce is so good at removing nitrates from aquariums it is frequently grown in a sump filter, especially if the tank contains fish that would otherwise eat the plant. In my fish room, I have a 300-gallon (1,360 liters) tank that contains a school of Tinfoil Barbs. Tinfoil Barbs would quickly eat the Dwarf Water Lettuce so I have it growing in the large sump filter which sits below the main tank.



How Do You Plant Aquarium Plants Into Sand?

Sand can be a tricky substrate to plant aquarium plants into because it is so fine. If you have ever tried planting rootless stem plants into a sandy substrate, you will know they often just float up to the surface.

The secret to planting into sand is the depth of the sand. The deeper the sand is, the better grip the plants will get. In my own fish tanks, I have a sandy layer that is between 2″ and 3″ (5cm and 7.5cm) deep. I push each stem plant in almost to its first set of leaves and leave it. They will quickly form a strong root ball.

If you don’t have a deep enough layer of sand, you can try adding some plant weights to keep the stems down until roots form. Simply take an individual plant weight and gently wrap it around the plant, trying not to crush the stem in the process. Push the plant and weight into the sand into the plant will no longer float to the surface.

What Types Of Sand Can Be Used In An Aquarium?

So officially I would say ‘only ever use sand which is sold especially for use in an aquarium!

However, over the years I have tried many different types of sand, with varying degrees of success. The sands I have found to work really well are;

  • Play Sand
  • Pool Filter Sand
  • Crush Coral
  • Flourite Black Sand
  • Black Diamond blasting sand

Whatever sand you use, make sure it comes from a reliable source and always wash it well before adding it to your tank. Be aware, sands that are not being sold especially for aquariums may contain chemicals or additives that harm your fish

Is Sand Safe For Aquariums?

In my experience, yes, sand is very safe to use in an aquarium providing it is washed well before adding it to the tank.

Do be aware that some colored sand may contain dye or paint that comes off in your aquarium.

Does Sand Contain Nutrients for Plants?

No, sand is almost completely inert and does not contain any useful nutrients for the plants. If you are planting a heavy root feeding plant into the sand, consider adding root tabs when you plant the plants. Root tabs dissolve slowly over the course of several months, releasing nutrients exactly where the plant needs them.

I have tried many different root tabs over the years, and I currently use a lot of Flourish Root Tabs which are made by Seachem.

If you are mainly growing stem plants in the sand then there is a good chance you won’t need to add root tabs as most stem plants draw nutrients directly from the water column rather than the substrate.

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How Do You Wash Aquarium Sand?

The major pain in the butt with using sand in an aquarium is washing it before adding it to the tank. It takes ages!

The best way I have found to wash aquarium sand before adding it to my aquarium is to tip some into a bucket and run the hose directly into the sand. As the water is flowing you have to continually stir the sand to release any debris that may be caught in it. When stirring, take care not to wash the sand out of the bucket It’s easily done.

Does Sand Make A Good Substrate For Plants?

In my opinion, sand makes a great substrate for plants, providing you pick the right plants. There would be no point trying to grow a carpet on Monte Carlo in sand because it just won’t work. However, a thick bunch of Vallisneria or Amazon Sword plants will work really well. Choose the right plants and the right sand, and you will have a tank that looks amazing for many years.



In Conclusion

Sand has a reputation for being a poor substrate for plants. However, in my experience, this reputation is not well deserved. Providing the correct plants are chosen, they can grow very well in sand.

I have tried many different plants over the years, and the 13 on this list are the ones I have had the most success with.


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
Editor