8 Best Plants for Sand Aquariums

Top 8 Plants for Sand Aquariums

Although the choice of substrate in a freshwater planted aquarium is dependent on the discretion of the hobbyists, we have to keep in mind that it will also affect the kind of plants that one can have.

So, if you have made a decision to keep a sand aquarium instead of the gravel type, then you should equally find out the variety of plants that can grow and thrive in sand.

Sand type substrates are good alternatives to gravel and are beneficial when you have species of bottom-dwelling fish with soft bellies and sensory organs that need to stay harm-free.

Sand is known to be of tiny granules, fine, and compact on roots of plants due to its small pore size and gritty texture. This substrate type is also capable of suffocating the roots of certain plant species; making it difficult for it to grow and spread out.

Hence the need to know the plants that can grow in it successfully. However, you should be aware that in some cases, the sand substrate should be fertilized regularly as it does not provide nutrients needed by the plants to thrive.

Are you still unsure of plants that will be able to thrive in sand? The good news is that there are quite a fair number of plants that will grow easily and propagate in the sand with the right care.

Here’s my list of compatible plant species to choose from:

  1. Anubias
  2. Cabomba
  3. Hornwort
  4. Java fern
  5. Vallisneria
  6. Subwassertang
  7. Dwarf hairgrass
  8. Anacharis

1.    Anubias (Araceae sp.)

Anubias is probably one of the most popular choices for the sand aquariums. This is a slow-growing and undemanding plant species, known for its attractive, durable green foliage and strong root structure. This species is native to tropical Western Africa where it grows in rivers, streams, and shady parts of marshes.

Also, Anubias can grow partially submerged, fully submersed in water, and even emersed— hence its use in paludariums.

Anubias is characterized by the possession of broad, coarse, and leathery leaves, white roots, white flowers, and a height of from a few inches (centimeters) up to 40 inches depending on the species.

Anubias Optimal Requirements:

  • Water pH: 6.0 – 8.0.
  • Hardness: Soft to hard water.
  • Temperature: This plant is best grown under the temperature range of 22-28 °C (72 – 82F).
  • Lighting: Low to moderate lighting conditions.

It will thrive in a sand substrate, gravel, or aqua soil, however, the roots should not be buried completely, the crown/rhizome needs to be visible above the substrate.

Anubias can thrive with or without fertilization as well. However, it will benefit from the application of liquid fertilizers rich in iron and manganese to minimize the appearance of yellow spots on the leaves.

Anubias
PROS CONS
Beautiful plant. Slow growth rate.
Has many varieties. Prone to algae.
Easy to care for and maintain. Not the best at sucking up nitrates and ammonia.
Hardy.  
Some species are great for nano tanks.  
Does not require substrate.  
Provides a lot of surface area for shrimp and fish to feed on.  
Provides a lot of cover for small fish and shrimp.  
Easy to propagate.  

For more information, read the article “Anubias Care Guide – Planting, Growing and Propagation”.

Anubias – check out the price on Amazon

2.    Cabomba (Cabomba sp.)

Cabomba is yet another plant that can be grown successfully in a sand aquarium. This fan-shaped plant features delicate needle-like leaves that grow on thin brittle stems, vibrant foliage that range from a pale green to reddish-purple coloration depending on the species.

This plant can either be floated on the water surface or planted in the background of sand aquariums, and it is easily propagated by making cuttings from mature stems for replanting in the sand substrate.

Cabomba Optimal Requirements:

  • Water pH: A slightly acidic to neutral pH (typically in the range of 6.0 – 7.5
  • Hardness: Soft to hard water.
  • Temperature: This plant is best grown under the temperature range of 20 – 28 °C (68 – 82 °F).
  • Lighting: Medium-high lighting conditions.

The plant has been observed to exhibit decent coloration and robust growth under high lighting conditions.

Furthermore, Cabomba does not root very deeply, therefore it can be grown in any kind of substrate, be it sand, gravel, etc. The substrate type does not matter because the plant absorbs nutrients mostly from the water column.

Since Cabomba is a water column feeder, it will benefit from the application of CO2 and liquid fertilizers such as Seachem Excel (link to Amazon), this does not only keep the plant healthy but also promotes faster growth of shoots.

Cabomba
PROS CONS
Nice looking plant (except aerial roots). Fragile structure. Needles break off very easily.
Fast growth rate. Does not tolerate well the change of environment.
Easy to care for and maintain. Does not like to be moved.
Good at sucking up nitrates and ammonia. Ugly aerial roots.
Provides a lot of surface area for shrimp and fish to feed on.  
Provides a lot of cover for small fish and shrimp.  

For more information, read the article “Cabomba Care Guide – Planting, Growing and Propagation”.

3.    Hornwort (Ceratophyllum demersum)

Hornwort is a fast-growing plant species, noted for its resilient nature and horn-like needles that grow on tall, slender stems. This plant is suitable for adorning the background of planted tanks.

Due to its relatively fast growth rate, Hornwort is not a perfect fit for nano tanks and should be grown in tanks of at least 15 gallons (~60 liters).

Ceratophyllum demersum can be floated on the water surface or planted in a sand substrate.

Keep in mind that it can be a little problematic to plant it because Hornwort does not produce roots. Instead, the plant forms modified leaves, which it uses to anchor to the sediment. So, don’t forget to weigh the plants down using lead weights, suction cups (for attachment to the tank walls), or any other accessory that can deliver the needed result.

Hornwort Optimal Requirements:

Hornwort is hardy and adaptable to slight variations in water conditions. The ability of Hornwort to obtain most of its needed nutrients from the tank water makes it ideal for cultivation in the sand.

  • Water pH: A slightly acidic to neutral pH (typically in the range of 6.0 – 8.0
  • Hardness: Soft to hard water.
  • Temperature: This plant can thrive under the temperature of 64 – 86 °F (18 – 30 F) with around 75 to 79 (24 – 27C) being optimal.
  • Lighting: Medium lighting conditions.
Hornwort
PROS CONS
 A very beautiful plant. Brittle leaves. Needles break off very easily.
Fast growth rate. Can be a super hardy plant or die almost immediately.
Easy to care for and maintain.  
It has heavy metal absorption properties!  
This plant is amazing at reducing nitrates.  
It will also help to clear the cloudy water in the tank!  
Provides a lot of cover for small fish and shrimp.  
Provides a lot of surface area for shrimp and fish to feed on.  

For more information, read the article “Hornwort Care Guide – Planting, Growing and Propagation”.

Hornwort – check out the price on Amazon

4.    Java fern (Microsorum Pteropus)

Java fern is one of the most renowned plant species in the hobby. The plant is easy to cultivate, undemanding, and compatible with various kinds of fish. Java fern is ideal for mid-ground to background placement in planted tanks and it exhibits a slow-moderate growth rate which most aquarists love.

This hardy plant can be grown successfully in a sand substrate. Just keep in mind that the rhizomes are not be buried! You can simply fasten it to ornaments like driftwood or rocks, afterwards, place it on the sand substrate.

Java fern can thrive without nutrient supplementation, but since the plant is a water column feeder, regular application of liquid fertilizers will help it stay vibrant.

Java fern Optimal Requirements:

Java fern is one of the best plants for beginners because it can adaptable to a huge range of water parameters.

  • Water pH: 6.0 – 8.0.
  • Hardness: Soft to hard water.
  • Temperature: 20 – 28 C (68 – 82 F)
  • Lighting: Low to Moderate lighting.
Java Fern
PROS CONS
Very beautiful and decorative.
Can be used in aquascaping.
Grows very slow
Easy to care for and maintain. Blocks waterways, thereby restricting the movement of inhabitants.
Dense shade cover for shy fish and shrimp. Can block nutrient and sunlight absorption for lower-dwelling plants in the tank.
Can survive in a wide range of temperature conditions.  

For more information, read the article “Java Fern Care Guide – Planting, Growing and Propagation”.

Java Fern – check out the price on Amazon

5.    Vallisneria (Vallisneria sp.)

This is a popular aquarium plant prized for its prolific nature and attractive tall rosulate structure. Vallisneria is ideal for adorning the background of planted tanks, thanks to its bright ribbon-like green leaves.

Vallisneria will grow in any kind of substrate. Hobbyists have witnessed success planting Vals in sand, plain gravel, and soft pebbles.

Vallisneria is a very versatile plant. Depending on the tank setup, it can get nutrition from the substrate and from the water column.

It will benefit from the addition of root tabs, and CO2 injection. However, you may not even have to add any fertilizers as long as your fish and snails produce enough waste.

Also, Vallisneria propagates through its numerous runners and daughter plants that form when the plant settles.

Vallisneria Optimal Requirements:

This is a very hardy plant and can be grown even in brackish water. So, there should not be any problem with that.

  • Water pH: 6.5 – 8.0.
  • Hardness: Soft to hard water.
  • Temperature: 20 – 28 C (68 – 82 F)
  • Lighting: Requires moderate-high (bright) lighting for maintenance of their tall, bright green leaves and robust growth of lateral shoots.
Vallisneria
PROS CONS
Good choice for aquascaping. Cannot be used in small tanks
Hardy plant. Can block nutrients and light for lower-dwelling plants in the tank.
Fast growth rate.  
Can tolerate a wide range of water conditions.  
Good at absorbing nitrates and ammonia.  
Provides a lot of surface area for shrimp and fish to feed on.  
Provides a lot of cover for small fish and shrimp.  
Easy to propagate.  

For more information, read my article “Vallisneria Care Guide – Planting, Growing, and Propagation”.

Vallisneria – check out the price on Amazon

6.    Subwassertang (genus Lomariopsis)

Subwassertang is one of the most underrated plants in the aquarium hobby. Its requirements are so low that this aquatic plant can be used in any tank. It makes Subwassertang a great option for the sandy substrate.

There is a lot of mystery surrounding this plant. For example, biologists still acknowledge the fact that they do not know much about this species. To date, they are unaware of any record in which the gametophytes of Lomariopsis lineata have been observed naturally growing in aquatic environments.

To make it even weirder, according to the study, we can reasonably assume that all of the plants currently being sold are exact clones of each other and have reproduced entirely by continuous meristematic growth.

Subwassertang Optimal Requirements:

This is a very hardy plant and can be grown even in brackish water. So, there should not be any problem with that.

  • Water pH: 6.0 – 8.0.
  • Hardness: Subwassertang can tolerate a wide range of water hardness but it still prefers soft water.
  • Temperature: 20 – 24 °C (68 – 75°F)
  • Lighting: Low to moderate lighting.
Subwassertang
PROS CONS
Hardy plant. Slow growth rate.
Can be used in nano tanks. Not good against nitrates and ammonia.
Can tolerate a wide range of water conditions. Susceptible to algae growth.
Provides a lot of surface area for shrimp and fish to feed on. Sensitive to Seachem Excel.
Provides a lot of cover for small fish and shrimp.  
Easy to propagate.  

For more information, read my article “Subwassertang  Care Guide – Planting, Growing, and Propagation”.

7.    Dwarf hairgrass (Eleocharis accicularis)

If you fancy an attractive carpet plat in your sand aquarium, then you should consider cultivating the Dwarf hairgrass.

Dwarf hairgrass is ideal for placement in the foreground and mid-ground of planted tanks. This plant is undemanding and can adapt to a wide range of environmental conditions (temperature, pH, and hardness).

Although it prefers a nutrient-rich substrate, it can also grow really well in a sand-based substrate.

The fine grains of a sandy substrate allows the thin and delicate roots to grow and penetrate deep enough to anchor. It also allows the runners to proliferate perfectly, thereby forming beautiful and minute tufts of delicate green stems.

Note: Keep in mind that you will have to use fertilizers with a sand substrate, as sand contains no nutrients at all. The good news though is that Dwarf hairgrass can take nutrients from the water column! It makes our life way easier because we can use any type of fertilizers (liquid or root tabs).

Read more about it in my article “Top 5 Substrates For Planted Aquariums”. 

Dwarf hairgrass Optimal Requirements:

This is a very hardy plant and can be grown even in brackish water. So, there should not be any problem with that.

  • Water pH: 6.5 – 7.5.
  • Hardness: Soft to moderately hard water.
  • Temperature: 22 – 26 °C (72 – 79 °F)
  • Lighting: Moderate to high lighting.
Dwarf hairgrass 
PROS CONS
Decorative. Growth rate is relatively slow without CO2
Creates beautiful lawns. Highly susceptible to algae growth.
Tolerates cooler temperatures. Easily clogs up with debris.
Easy to cultivate.  
Great for nano tanks.  

For more information, read the article “Dwarf Hairgrass Care Guide – Planting, Growing, and Propagation”.

8.    Anacharis (Egeria densa)

Anacharis is a vivid, versatile, and resilient, plant. These are some of the reasons why it is so highly sought-after by hobbyists.

It can grow and propagate in almost any kind of substrate since it feeds through the water column and substrate.

Anacharis is a huge plant that cannot be kept in nano tanks. It will grow to the water surface, then create branches that spread out horizontally to form a mat or thick canopy

Anacharis Optimal Requirements:

This plant is very easy to care for, and you should not run into many problems with it. Under optimal conditions, Anacharis grows very fast. In one month it can easily double or even triple in size!

  • Water pH: 6.0 – 8.0
  • Hardness: Soft to hard water.
  • Temperature: 20 – 24 °C (68 – 75 °F)
  • Lighting: Moderate to high lighting.
Anacharis
PROS CONS
Excellent decorative addition for jungle aquascape. Can block nutrients and light for lower-dwelling plants in the tank.
Extremely effective against algae. Cannot be used in small tanks
Easy to care for and maintain. Susceptible to algae growth.
Provides a lot of surface area for shrimp and fish to feed on. Sensitive to Seachem Excel.
Provides a lot of cover for small fish and shrimp.  
Grows very fast.  
Easy to cultivate.  

For more information, read the article “Anacharis Care Guide – Planting, Growing, and Propagation”.

Plants That Depends on Fertilizers to Grow in Sandy Substrate

There are many articles on the Internet that also mention such aquatic plants as:

So, why are they not included on my list?

Well, even though these plants can grow in the sandy substrate but they are heavy root-feeders! These plants have a very large root system. Therefore, the addition of root tabs is not just a necessity, it is absolutely crucial!

Basically, following this logic, we can use almost any root-feeder plant in any substrate as long as we provide lots and lots of nutrients for them.

In this case, what is the point? Where is the benefit of having these plants in the sandy substrate?

How to Grow Aquarium Plants in Sand

Although my list of plants that can grow in sandy substrate does not heavily depend on the fertilizers, it is not a secret that growing aquarium plants in the sand is a whole lot easier when you provide the essential nutrients needed for their growth activities.

As I have said, most plants rely heavily on their roots for nutrition. Hence they will benefit hugely from the addition of root tabs in the sand substrate. Whereas plants that feed off nutrients in the water column will appreciate periodical dosing of the tank water with liquid fertilizers.

These are the main differences.

As a result, you will be rewarded with lush, healthy-looking plants.

Keep in mind that periodical dosing of fertilizers will benefit even ordinary planted tank with the nutrient-rich substrate. The point is that even nutrient-rich substrates may not have enough micro or macronutrients.

For example, aquarium plants need macronutrients like Nitrogen, Potassium, and Phosphorus in substantial amounts. Whereas micronutrients like Iron, Zinc, and Manganese are required in smaller quantities, and they all have a role to play in the growth and development of plants.

Regardless of how good your substrate is, eventually, you will have to either replace it (when your plants consume most of the nutrients) or start using fertilizers from time to time.

Therefore, be sure to carry out routine checks to find out if any nutrient is lacking. If there is a deficiency, then you need to replenish the depleted nutrients as soon as possible.

You can also read “How to Spot Nutrient Deficiencies in Aquatic Plants”.

Substrate Depth and Maintenance

Do ensure that your plants have enough room to grow, the sand substrate should be around 2 – 3 inches (5 – 7 cm) deep. It will help them to anchor and give the plants enough area to fix their roots.

You may decide to go deeper if there are fish or crayfish species that are capable of uprooting the plants’ roots from the sand substrate.

Note: The thicker your substrate is the more anaerobic areas (areas without oxygen) you are going to have. Heterotrophic bacteria will naturally occur in the lower level of the substrate where there is no oxygen present. These bacteria create Hydrogen sulfide pockets. This gas is very dangerous and can kill your fish and shrimp.

Luckily we can effectively neutralize the hydrogen sulfide in the tanks with oxygen.  Once the gas connects with oxygen it will return to sulfate form, which is not toxic. In addition, the roots of plants will help to break up anaerobic pockets in the substrate. 

If you want to know more about Heterotrophic bacteria, you can read my article “No Water Change Tank?! Top Offs vs Water Change”.

Moreover, bear in mind that sand may not give your plants a perfect hold, so it’s not unusual to see plants floating around in the tank. This problem should be given due attention, and one can utilize lead weights to hold the plant roots firmly to the substrate for better anchorage.

To encourage the survival and growth of plants in sand substrates, try not to bury the crown, otherwise, the plant will rot.

During routine maintenance of the sand aquarium, do not forget to siphon the debris that stays on top of the sand.

Finally, remember to fill the tank carefully during regular water changes to avoid dislodgement of the sand bed.

In Conclusion

When choosing live plants for sand aquariums; much emphasis should be placed on compatibility before any other determinant.

The chosen plants should be able to grow optimally and survive in the sand without hassles, and that’s why I highlighted one of the best plants that will fit into your sand aquariums.

Most of the plants discussed above are relatively easy to grow and require minimal attention. However, you have to provide the needed nutrients and other essential requirements to be rewarded with healthy-looking plants all year round.

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