One of the reasons why we love live aquarium plants is because their natural beauty just seems to magically enhance the appearance of your fish and invertebrates. Plus, some of the animals start to exhibit unique behaviors that you wouldn’t normally see unless they’re surrounded by a jungle of leaves, stems, and roots. If you enjoy aquatic plants as much as we do, try pairing them with our top 10 favorite plant-friendly fish and see which ones you love the best.
1. Elephant Nose Fish
You may be surprised that we started off with an oddball fish that is not commonly kept by most hobbyists. Part of the reason is because it grows up to 9 inches (23 cm) in length and is territorial toward other weakly electric mormyrids, including its own species. Another deterrent is that it is highly nocturnal and is only seen foraging after the lights are off. However, you can encourage it to come out more by dimming the aquarium lights earlier in the day, adding caves, and providing a thick mass of plants. The large shadows created by the forest cover help the elephant-nose fish feel comfortable coming out at dusk to search for food with its probing, trunk-like appendage. This African species gets along with other medium-sized, peaceful tank mates, such as pearl gouramis, bichirs, and Geophagus cichlids. It’s not a picky eater and eats most meaty foods, but make sure to give it an extra feeding at night so it won’t get outcompeted during mealtimes.
2. Rummy-Nose Tetra
The 2-inch (5 cm) rummy nose tetra is often seen in pet stores as a common schooling fish, but we’re talking about getting more than just six of them. Aim for a larger group of 15, 30, or even 100 of them for a 55-gallon tank to see the mesmerizing schooling behavior they would actually display in the wild. Not only do their red faces and striped tails look fantastic against a background of greenery, but also when they weave in and out of the vegetation, they help add depth to your planted aquarium so it looks like a never-ending, miniature landscape. Rummy noses don’t have a mean bone in their body and can go with many other community fish of the same size, but if you’re looking for an incredible statement piece in your home, we highly recommend making them the main feature of a densely planted tank. For more care instructions, read the full article.
3. Siamese Algae Eater
Of course, we always love a good algae eater in our planted tanks, and the Siamese algae eater (SAE) is one of the best for medium to large aquariums. This hard-working cleanup crew member is unrelenting in its hunt for leftover morsels hidden in the substrate or algae that’s stuck on plant leaves. While its slender, tannish-silver body with the prominent, black stripe may seem a little underwhelming in appearance, we personally think the SAE makes an excellent “wingman” because it’s always zipping around and bringing your attention to other, more colorful plants and animals in the tank. Because of their boisterous behavior, they can sometimes end up herding the schooling fish together for greater visual impact, so make sure not to keep any small or slow-moving creatures with this 6-inch (15 cm) tank boss. Once they reach adulthood, they often become territorial towards their own kind and prefer eating fish food over algae, so you can reawaken their algae-eating habits by withholding food for a week or so.
4. Congo Tetra
One of the factors that impacts how we choose fish for a planted tank is “How good will the animal look with my plants?” If you want the fish to blend in and keep the focus on the plants, then you may choose green or neutral-colored species. If you want the fish to pop, then avoid picking species with plant-like colors and instead look for complementary hues. The 3-inch (8 cm) Congo tetra boldly features flowy, translucent finnage with red-orange and blue horizontal bands that shine against the foliage. While the females are not as vivid in coloration, we always recommend including a good number of them in the school so that you can experience the males in full breeding dress. As a livelier schooling fish, we recommend putting them with similar-sized tank mates that can put up with their energy level but won’t nip their long fins — such as rainbowfish, plecos, and the aforementioned elephant nose fish.
5. Leopard Bush Fish
Also known as the Ctenopoma leaf fish or Congo leaf fish, this oddball species is ideally suited for a planted tanks because it is camouflaged to look like a mottled, brown leaf. While it may start off small at the fish store, the adults can grow to the hefty size of a 6-inch (15 cm) taco, so aim for a 55-gallon fish tank or bigger. Also, only keep them with other medium-sized, deeper-bodied fish — like larger rainbowfish, Congo tetras, angelfish, and peaceful catfish — because they will happily gulp down all your nano species. You can find them exploring both the top and bottom levels of your tank, searching for bloodworms, pellets, or live foods to eat. The spotted bushfish is relatively accessible in the aquarium hobby, so give them a try if you’re interested in keeping an ambush predator that can live up to 10–15 years.
6. Sunset Variatus Platy
We always love mentioning the sunset variatus platy because it’s one of our favorite livebearers (or fish that bear young) that is readily available at pet stores. They are very colorful, can handle a wide range of water parameters (including unheated aquariums), and won’t break the bank if you are on a budget. While you can keep them in a 20-gallon aquarium, we like to start with six platies in a 29-gallon tank or bigger because they will reproduce quite readily for you. The reason why they are well-suited for planted tanks is because, like many other livebearers, platies are eager eaters that like to pick off all the crumbs and algae on your plant leaves. Once they start producing offspring, the babies, juveniles, and adults are able to poke their mouths into tight crevices of different sizes to hoover up any edible organics they find. Plus, plants with dense foliage, like water sprite and Pogostemon stellatus ‘octopus’, allow the young fry to hide from would-be predators. For more information on platies, read our full care guide.
7. Silver or Common Hatchetfish
Even if you have lots of fish and plants at different levels in the aquarium, sometimes the top portion of the tank can look a little empty. Enter the silver hatchetfish. They are not the most colorful top-dwelling fish, but when they school together or accidentally get spooked, it creates a sudden flash as the light reflects off their shiny scales. It’s a very unique display that can get even disinterested family members or friends to stare at your aquarium in wonder. As with most surface dwellers, make sure to keep a tight-fitting aquarium lid with all of the holes and openings covered because they will try to jump out if given the chance. For more details, see our article on hatchetfish.
8. Rosy Barb
Barbs often have the reputation for being too feisty to keep with peaceful community fish. In our experience though, the 4-inch-long (10 cm) rosy barb is a little calmer and can do well with tankmates of a similar temperament. While there are several line-bred varieties of the rosy barb, we personally prefer the long-finned types because they are a bit slower and more laid back in general. Plus, they are quite robust and can live at room temperatures without an aquarium heater. Get a school of at least 6–10 rosy barbs and put them in a thickly planted tank if you hope to breed them. Because they like to constantly pick at hair algaes, they do best with thick-leaved plants like Amazon swords, anubias, and java fern.
9. Corydoras Catfish
Everyone agrees that cory catfish are amazing bottom dwellers that would do well in almost any community tank. However, we are specifically referring to smaller ones — such as the panda cory (Corydoras panda), tail spot cory (C. hastatus), salt and pepper cory (C. habrosus), and pygmy cory (C. pygmaeus). Because corydoras are always shuffling along the ground looking for leftovers to eat, larger corys may accidentally uproot plants that are brand new or have been planted in lightweight aqua soils. Therefore, if you are worried about either case in your planted tank, get a school of 6–12 conspecific corydoras (or corys that all belong to the same species) that will diligently clean the substrate and root structures of plants without disturbing them. While these species are not especially colorful, they are quite adorable because of their tiny “mustaches” (or barbels around their mouth) and ability to “wink” at you. Learn more about their husbandry in this care guide.
10. Cherry Shrimp
We couldn’t end this list without the perfect, little invertebrate for a planted tank. We could spend hours just watching them as they climb up plant leaves and use their little claws to carefully pick off all the algae and debris from every surface. Plus, this 1.5-inch (4 cm) crustacean comes in practically every color of the rainbow, which looks spectacular in an underwater forest with rockwork or driftwood. If you have softer water, make sure to dose mineral supplements (like Wonder Shell or Seachem Equilibrium) and feed some shrimp-specific foods that contain essential nutrients to ensure healthy molting. Because Neocaridina shrimp do not predate on their own young, they breed very easily in a species-only setup without any other fish, and the offspring can be sold to fish stores or local hobbyists to help supplement your aquarium expenses. Get all the details in our cherry shrimp care guide.
You can mix and match many of these community species together in your planted aquarium, as long as they are similar in size and water parameter preferences. While we do not ship live fish, you can check out our preferred online retailers to find your favorite aquatic animals. Plus, don’t forget to peruse our curated collection of live plants that are ideal for aquarium keepers of all levels.
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