The whole picture
This article is about The whole picture. A well-planted aquarium is similar to a painting; it is a creative masterpiece. But like paintings, the tank needs a focal point, something that draws the eye, something that is the finishing touch to the whole picture. You need a specimen plant.
This is a plant on which you devote tender love and care. Firstly because it is usually more expensive and secondly, because you want it to have the ‘wow’ factor. But before adding this plant to your tank, make sure that all conditions are met.
Is your tank ready?
All new set-ups must have a combination of fast-growing plants such as Hygrophila, Ludwigia, Mexican Oak, Vallis etc.
Use a good substrate such as Eco-Complete planted aquarium substrate. This has an iron, calcium, magnesium, potassium and sulphur base and contains 20 other elements. It is packed with heterotrophic bacteria, which convert fish waste into food for your plants.
It comes packed in Liquid Amazon buffered ‘Black Water’ solution for immediate organic water conditioning so can be used straight away. It also promotes healthy root growth.
You could also try Flourite red or Onyx sand, the fractured clay-based substrate. Although some argue that these are expensive, you have to take into account the savings on nutrients and supplements.
Good quality water goes without saying. I’ve had excellent results with a Nitragon, which removes nitrate and phosphates – prime sources of algae. However, fast-growing plants work in the same way, stripping out the nitrates and phosphates.
It is also important to have a good covering of surface-floating plants such as Riccia, Amazon frogbit and Hornwort.
They reduce the harsh light in a new set-up, strip out nutrients and act as biological filters. Some may be a little pervasive but they are easy to remove. Few outlets stock them, but Green Line Aquatics has a good selection.
Before you buy
If you are investing in a specimen plant, ensure you are getting what you pay for. All plants should have a good root system. These should be white and growing through the base of the pot.
If you cannot see any, then the plant is a cutting which has been packed in. This is deceitful and also crushes any roots that may have been there. Avoid plants that have brown or yellowing edges – these are showing signs of stress or shock.
Tropica produce good quality plants – they may cost a little more, but you get what you pay for. Cheaper plants haven’t had the important few months under controlled conditions to build up energy and strength.
Which specimen plant?
Echinodorus ozelot is one of my favourites and is an easy plant. It has attractive brown spots and a green-olive colour. Happy in moderate light, it tolerates most water conditions from hard to soft.
Another good Echinodorus is E. rubin. This needs space so suits large tanks.
A new variety which is difficult but worth persevering with is ‘Oriental’. This has pale pink young leaves which change to a deeper red as it ages, and throws up white, almost translucent, leaves. It prefers slightly softer water with CO2 injection. It is not for the novice.
A word of warning. Do your homework and see what size your plants can grow to. I once set up a 500 l./ 110 gal. tank in an office and put in an E. ‘rubin’. It is a hybrid cross of E. horemanii ‘Red’ and E. barthii. It has red-brown leaves with creamy veins. The tank was a softwater Dennerle set-up with undersoil heating, CO2 injection and pH control.
Within eight weeks, it had filled the tank and had to be removed. It did, however, produce plantlets which were used instead.
A new variety, ‘Indian Red’, is well worth looking out for. This is a hybrid of E. ascagramarius and E. horemanii ‘Red’. It has deep red leaves turning to pink and olive brown and green as it ages. But it also needs space. ‘Green Panda’ has green and white leaves, and ‘Kleiner Bar’ has pure red-brown leaves with no green or olive tint. I am not sure of their size.
For those with smaller tanks, try E. osiris ‘Rubra’ or E. schlueteri ‘Leopard’. There are also some new varieties which are quite easy such as ‘Red Flame’. This is similar to ozelot, but a much deeper red.
For a cheaper alternative, how about bulbs? ‘Red Lotus’ is a good start, but you may have to go the mail-order route. These make a wonderful show in the centre of the tank. They do, however, throw up leaves to the surface which need to be removed in order to encourage the plant to bush out.
This plant grows vigorously for three or four months and then slows down. This is, however, normal and it will come back the next season renewed.
Another bulb that makes a good specimen is the Aponogeton. One of the easiest to grow is Aponogeton crispus. It prefers slightly soft acid water, but I have had no problem growing it in my hard London tapwater. It will reward you with lovely flower spikes.
A. rigidifolius is unusual and easy to grow. It tolerates most water conditions and only requires moderate light and a pH of between 6.2 and 7.5, yet is quite happy in moderately hard water. It produces a horizontal rhizome and the leaves are similar to crispus without the serration. Being found naturally in fast-flowing water, it benefits from being near the filter.
It is slow growing but will develop into a magnificent plant. Unfortunately, it is difficult to propagate from seed: division of the rhizome is the only effective method.
For the ultimate, look to the Madagascan Lace. It is not easy to grow. Green Line Aquatics has some good hybrids and with care, you should get months of pleasure. The plants need plenty of light, are happier in cooler conditions and will benefit from being planted with crypts – and I don’t know why this is so!
They probably benefit each other as one uses minerals that the other does not require, and there are chemical enzymes working away that benefit each other.
Another bulb for a specimen plant is the Crinum, an architectural plant. This has an onion-like appearance and produces strappy, often serrated, leaves in a regular spiral formation. I particularly like C. calamistratum.
As for ferns, my favourite is Microsorum pteropus ‘Windelov’ with its crinkly tips. These are easy to grow and prefer shade, so avoid bright light. They can tolerate most water conditions. The best ones are those that have been tissue cultured directly onto wood or lava rock. With the right conditions, they can grow to the size of dinner plates.
Another favourite is Anubias. Being slow growing, the leaves are often colonised with algae so a good covering of floating plants is essential. If you do get algae, it can be easily rubbed off using your fingers and thumb – as the leaves are tough and leathery, you should not do any damage.
This article was first published in the February 2004 issue of Practical Fishkeeping magazine.