Bolbitis Heudelotii – Planting, Growing, and Propagation

African water fern (Bolbitis Heudelotii) – Planting, Growing, and Propagation main

African water fern (Bolbitis Heudelotii) is one of the most beautiful plant species that can be cultivated in an aquarium. It has an interesting shape that adds a special charm to the aquarium composition.

I would not recommend this plant to beginners as it is quite demanding when it comes to water parameters and care conditions. Bolbitis Heudelotii requires a good amount of flow, moderate light, warm temperature, soft and acidic water.

In this article, I will describe everything known about Bolbitis Heudelotii and provide practical recommendations that can help in the care and cultivation of African water ferns.

Quick Notes about Bolbitis Heudelotii

Common Name African water fern
Other Names Creeping fern or Congo fern
Scientific Name
Bolbitis heudelotii
Difficulty Moderate
Lighting Low to Moderate
Optimal pH 5.0 – 7.0
Optimal GH 1 – 6
Optimal Temperature 71 – 82°F (22 – 28°C)
Substrate Any (Does not need)
Can Be Grown Emersed
Growth Rate Low 
Placement in Tank
Midground and background
Aquarium size 10 – 20 inches (25 – 50 cm)
Low requirements
CO2 Not needed
Propagation Through rhizome division

Note: In scientific literature, it is also noted that Bolbitis species such as B. virens, B. appendiculata, B. presliana also known as the African water fern.

Etymology of Bolbitis Heudelotii

The genus name “Bolbitis” is derived from the Greek word “Bolbos”, meaning “Bulb”, referring to the shape of the rhizome or the way the plant attaches itself to surfaces.

The species name “Heudelotii” is an homage to the French botanist and plant collector Jean-Pierre Heudelot (1802–1837). He contributed to the exploration and understanding of plants in Africa during the 19th century.

Taxonomy of Bolbitis Heudelotii

Bolbitis heudelotii belongs to a relatively young class Polypodiopsida. This class encompasses around 10,000 species, with only 120 of them being aquatic ferns.

  • Kingdom: Plantae (All plants)
  • Division (or Phylum): Pteridophyta (Ferns and related spore-reproducing plants)
  • Class: Polypodiopsida (Ferns)
  • Order: Polypodiales (Diverse group of ferns)
  • Family: Dryopteridaceae (Wood fern family)
  • Genus: Bolbitis (Group of ferns with bulb-like rhizomes)
  • Species: Bolbitis heudelotii

Distribution of Bolbitis Heudelotii

It is presumed that the native habitat of Bolbitis heudelotii is the Congo, from where the plant has spread from Ethiopia in the east to Senegal in the west and down to northern South Africa.

Habitat of Bolbitis Heudelotii

In its natural habitat, this species is generally found attached to driftwood or rocks in streams and relatively fast-flowing rivers, usually in areas with low nutrient levels. These environments are often partly shaded. Example location: Mulembo River.

Description of Bolbitis Heudelotii

African water fern (Bolbitis Heudelotii) – Planting, Growing, and Propagation - dividedBolbitis heudelotii is an aquatic fern characterized by elongated rhizomes and loosely placed leaves.

  • Growth form. This plant can be grown emersed (in paludarium) or fully submersed (in aquariums). In nature, it usually grows waterlogged.
  • Size. Bolbitis heudelotii is a relatively large plant. It can reach a height of 10 – 20 inches (25 – 50 cm). It is excellent for decorating the midground and background of an aquarium.
  • Rhizome. It has a long and thick (0.4 inches or 1 cm) brown rhizome from which numerous small roots extend. The rhizome serves as the attachment point for the leaves, referred to as fronds in ferns.
  • Leaves (fronds). The leaflets (fronds) are large and deeply lobed. Technically, Fronds are not true leaves but their precursors. Basically, what we consider a leaf in Bolbitis is an entire branch. It makes it challenging to discern where the leaf blade ends. Young fronds are coiled like a spiral, and the unfolding process can take a few

Fronds grow from the tip rather than the petiole. They are also arranged alternately. Young and mature fronds differ in appearance, with young ones having a more rounded edge, while older ones display a serrated or toothed appearance, enhancing the plant’s decorative appeal.

The leaves are pretty stiff and durable, covered by a double layer of epidermis. The outer layer, or cortex, has semi-woody cells for protection. The second layer has stomata, allowing the fern to respire. Therefore, in the light, the fronds of the fern are adorned with pearly air bubbles.

Note: An interesting characteristic of this fern is the ability of its leaves to orient horizontally, lying attractively on the substrate surface.

  • Color. Dark-green.
  • Roots. African water fern develops a very powerful root system. They also allow the plant anchor to almost any substrate.

Bolbitis Heudelotii Variations

African water fern (Bolbitis Heudelotii) – Planting, Growing, and Propagation VariationsThere are two intriguing dwarf morphs of this species:

Heudelotii Variations var. Compact: This is a dwarf variation of the plant. Unlike the classic African water fern, this variety has a modest height, not exceeding 6 inches (15 cm).

Heudelotii Variations var. Baby Leaf: This is the smallest variation of the plant. This miniature version generally grows up to 3 – 4 inches (7 – 10 cm) in height.

Important: Personally, I haven’t had the chance to own mini versions of this plant. Even though you can find these different types of ferns for sale, some aquarium aquarists have mentioned a problem.

They bought mini-versions, but those plants ended up growing into the regular big Bolbitis heudelotii. On the other hand, some people say their mini-variations stay small.

Maybe some sellers aren’t so honest, and that’s something to think about too. So, there is a bit of doubt about what you will get.

Tank Requirements and Water Parameters

In order for Bolbitis heudelotii to show itself in all its beauty, certain requirements must be met.

Tank size:

When it comes to the standard plant, we can use a tank of at least 15 gallons (60 liters) due to its large size.

However, if it is the mini versions, they are great for smaller setups, even nano tanks up to 10 gallons (40 liters).

Water type, Temperature, Hardness, and pH:

Temperature: The temperature should be maintained between 71 – 82°F (22 – 28°C). This plant does not tolerate cold or too warm water or temperature fluctuations. It stops growing if the temperature drops below 68°F (20°C).

pH: Bolbitis plants prefer water with an acidic to neutral pH level (5.0 – 7.0). In alkaline water, leaf dissolution is often observed.

Hardness: Ideally, the water hardness should be less than 6 GH. In hard water it often melts.


In its natural habitat, Bolbitis heudelotii is often found in shaded areas. Therefore, we can safely replicate it in our tanks as well. It’s a good fit for low-tech tanks.

It will thrive in low to medium lighting in aquariums.

Direct sunlight causes burns on the fronds, resulting in brown spots. It’s not recommended to place the fern aquarium near a window.

The photoperiod should be 8-10 hours per day.

Related article:


In some sources, it’s stated that this plant doesn’t require water flow. However, the data suggests otherwise.

Bolbitis heudelotii prefers clean and fast-flowing water. This plant degrades in stagnant water pretty quickly.


African water fern can grow even in a bare bottom tank, as it can attach itself to the bottom of the aquarium, driftwood, stones, and other objects.

The substrate is needed mostly for a more aesthetic look and to enhance conditions for the plant.

CO2 and Fertilization:

CO2: Using a pressurized CO2 system is not mandatory. Sure it will help your ferns grow faster and bushier but, in general, this is completely optional.

Fertilization: Bolbitis heudelotii can survive without application of fertilizers as well, but it’s still a good idea to use it a few times a month for better growth.

Important: If you plan to add Bolbitis heudelotii in a shrimp tank or high-tech planted tank with CO2 and regular fertilization, I would highly recommend reading my articles:

The point is that a high level of CO2 and Copper (most fertilizers contain copper) is extremely dangerous to the shrimp.

Care and Maintenance of Bolbitis Heudelotii

You will need to closely monitor water parameters and avoid fluctuations, including temperature changes:

  • Warm temperature
  • Acidic water
  • Soft water
  • Some current
  • Avoid direct or intense light falling on this plant

This is a slow-grower plant. Even under optimal conditions, the African water fern typically produces only a few new leaves each month.

Do not hesitate to trim away any unhealthy leaves to encourage new growth. The plant tends to grow slightly faster afterward.

Do not forget to do regular water changes.

Yes, sometimes you may see or read somewhere that Bolbitis heudelotii growing in regular tap water in some aquariums.

However, this can stress it out quickly. Additionally, these tanks often use CO2 and liquid fertilizers. Anyway, it’s not a plant known for great adaptability.

Planting Bolbitis Heudelotii

This is a typical aquatic fern with leaves that grow along its rhizome. Therefore, avoid burying the rhizome in the substrate as this can cause decay.

Do not plant it directly in the substrate! The plant’s roots need free access to oxygen. This is especially important for the healthy development of the fern.

Use cotton thread or a fishing line to tie this plant to rocks or driftwood. Another option is to use super glue or just press it with something heavy (stone, etc.).

To attach the rhizome:

  • clean the surface of the driftwood or rock,
  • apply a drop of glue,
  • attach the fern rhizome,
  • press it firmly.

Approximately 2-3 weeks later, it will strongly attach to any surface, whether smooth or uneven, forming a dense web-like network of roots.

Note: Remember to prevent the fern from drying out by maintaining adequate moisture.

If you are too lazy to do any of that, you can simply drop the plant into your tank. Bolbitis heudelotii is heavier than water. So, it will naturally sink to the bottom and find its place on its own.

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Propagation of Bolbitis Heudelotii

In nature, Bolbitis heudelotii propagates by growing little plants (spores) on the underside of the leaf blade (like Java fern does).

In aquariums, Bolbitis heudelotii is only propagated through rhizome division.

African water fern (Bolbitis Heudelotii) – Planting, Growing, and Propagation - dividedYou might notice that the long rhizome appears to ‘rot’ in the middle or at certain points, and the separated parts go on to live independently.

  1. Carefully divide the plant into smaller pieces using a sharp knife, ensuring that each piece has at least 2-3 leaflets.
  2. Attach the divided portions to rocks or driftwood.

The plant is sensitive to such propagation and transplanting. Also, it is recommended to divide the rhizome into 2 or at most 3 parts, using only mature and well-established bushes. The stress from separating it from the main rhizome significantly slows down the fern’s growth.

Problems Associated With Bolbitis Heudelotii

Melting: It usually takes place when the plant is transferred from an emersed to a submersed environment or if the water parameters are unstable.

Solution: Don’t panic. In most cases, the plant will either regrow the leaves or continue growing while developing new submerged leaves. Also, keep your water parameters stable.

Turning black or brown: Sometimes the leaves of the plant may start turning black or brownish. This can be often attributed to hard and/or alkaline water (>7.0 pH) as well as planting the rhizome too deep in the substrate. Sometimes too much iron in the water can give the fronds an unattractive brownish color.

Solution: Do not plant it into the substrate. Check your water. Remove all unhealthy leaves so that the plant doesn’t waste energy on them.

Growth rate: It is one of those plants that can take a long time to adapt and grow in a new environment.

Solution: This is a very slow-growing plant, so do not expect much from it.

Ugly shape: The plant’s appearance suffers if you neglect to trim the old growth regularly.

Solution: Trim the plant and remove old leaves.

Algae: Like other slow-growing aquarium plants, it is highly susceptible to algae and may die because of it.

Solution: Algae can be curbed by making some adjustments to the lighting intensity, regular water changes, and the introduction of algae-eaters into the tank. You can also use a soft brush to clean the plant.

Overgrowth: Bolbitis heudelotii is a large plant and can shade its neighbors.

y overrun the tank if left unattended in no time. In addition, they will create shades thereby blocking light from getting to plants at the bottom of the tank.

Solution: The dense mass should be pruned and discarded from time to time to prevent overcrowding and shadowing at the surface.

Relocation: Bolbitis does not tolerate disturbances; even moving it can lead to a prolonged period of distress.

Solution: The only thing I can think of is to be extra careful with this plant.

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Benefits of Bolbitis Heudelotii

Aquascape: In aquariums, this plant can grow not only vertically but also horizontally, gracefully resting on driftwood, rocks, and other elements.
Note: The popularity of aquatic ferns rose after Takashi Amano incorporated them into his tropical compositions.

Foraging place: The structure of the plan acts like a buffet of biofilm, it also catches all the free-floating particles. Therefore, it creates a natural feeding ground for the shrimp. They will be constantly grazing on it.

Hard structure: This plant has relatively rigid leaves and overall structure, making it a good choice for aquariums where fish may nibble on plants (such as Goldfish), within reasonable limits of course.

Oxygenation: Helps to generate oxygen in the tank water. Bolbitis heudelotii has a distinct feature which is the production of small pearls or bubbles of oxygen that stay on top of the plant, this adds a very lively aspect to the plant.

Quarantine Bolbitis Heudelotii

African water fern (Bolbitis Heudelotii) – Planting, Growing, and Propagation profileUnless you are completely sure that Bolbitis heudelotii is safe, for example, it was grown in sterile/laboratory conditions (in vitro) and the in vitro pot is not damaged or opened, do not forget to quarantine and disinfect it first to avoid the risk of contamination and poisoning.

DO NOT introduce a new plant to your tank right after you bought it.

  • The plant can have parasites, pests like snails, or even predators (dragonfly, damsefly nymphs, etc.).
  • It may already contain residues of chemicals (pesticides) to remove parasites, snails, etc. These chemicals are extremely poisonous to fish, shrimp, and other invertebrates.

To find out more, read my articles:  

In Conclusion

Bolbitis heudelotii is an attractive and decorative aquarium plant. Its unique dark-green leaves and versatility in aquascaping make it popular among aquarium enthusiasts. It is an excellent choice for creating a tropical atmosphere in the aquarium.

Although this plant is not for beginners, it is relatively easy to grow when its specific requirements are met.

Proper lighting, suitable temperature, and water parameters will ensure the healthy growth and beauty of this plant in the aquarium.


  1. Kale, Manisha V. “Qualitative and quantitative analysis of three Bolbitis species.” Research Journal of Pharmaceutical, Biological and Chemical Sciences (2)122125 (2015).
  2. Kasselmann, Christel, Aquarium Plants(Krieger, Malabar, Florida) 2003: 157.
  3. Swaine, M. D., J. Adomako, G. Ameka, K. A. A. de Graft-Johnston, and M. Cheek. “Forest river plants and water quality in Ghana.” Aquatic botany85, №. 4 (2006): 299-308.
  4. Kennedy, M. P., and K. J. Murphy. “A picture guide to aquatic plants of Zambian rivers.” SAFRASS Deliverable Report to the African, Caribbean and Pacific Group of States (ACP Group) Science and Technology Programme. University of Aberdeen, UK(2012): 25.

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