Pygmy Chain Sword Care Guide – Planting, Growing, and Propagation

Pygmy Chain Sword (Echinodorus tenellus) Care Guide – Planting, Growing, and Propagation

Pygmy chain sword (Echinodorus tenellus) is a popular aquarium plant and one of my favorite carpeting plants.

This Chain Sword variety is prized for its hardiness, durability, fast-growing nature, and ease of care. Pygmy chain sword is ideal for beginners as it is quite easy to grow, requires minimal care, and can thrive without CO2.

Keep reading for more information on the Pygmy chain sword; I will be talking about its appearance, preferred water conditions, care, and how to cultivate it in a home aquarium.

Quick Notes about Pygmy Chain Sword

Common Name Pygmy Chain Sword
Other Names Helanthium tenellum, Narrow leaf chain sword, Dwarf Amazon sword, Micro Sword
Scientific Name Echinodorus tenellus
Tank Size (minimum) 10 gallons (~40 liters)
Difficulty Medium
Lighting Moderate to high lighting
Optimal pH 6.5 – 7.5
Water hardness Soft to moderately hard water.
Temperature 72 to 80 (22 – 26C)
Substrate Needed (nutrient-rich)
Growth Rate Moderate to high
Placement in Tank Mostly foreground / midground
Leave size up to 10 cm (about 4 inches)
CO2 Not needed – Low
Propagation Vegetatively by runners (submersed form)

Origin of Pygmy Chain Sword

Pygmy chain sword is a marsh plant species in the water plantain family Alismataceae. This beautiful carpeting plant is indigenous to the Americas (North, Central and South America), and can be found growing in diverse waterbodies where growth conditions are favorable.

The Pygmy chain sword’s taxonomical hierarchy is as follows:

Kingdom: Plantae
Clade: Tracheophytes
Clade: Angiosperms
Clade: Monocots
Order: Alismatales
Family: Alismataceae
Genus: Echinodorus
Species: Echinodorus tenellus

Habitat of Pygmy Chain Sword

Pygmy Chain Sword (Echinodorus tenellus) Care Guide – Planting, Growing, and PropagationPygmy chain sword is native to the Americas — North America: in states like Texas, Michigan, Florida, Missouri, as well as parts of Central and South America (Brazil, Paraguay, Guyana, and Argentina) where it grows fully or partially submerged in marshes, ponds, streams, and other aquatic bodies.

Description of Pygmy Chain Sword

Echinodorus tenellus is the smallest species of the Chain Sword genus “Echinodorus”. This swordplant features a height of 5 – 10 cm (2 – 4 inches) and thin leaves (0.1 inches or 3 mm in width).

Leaves of Echinodorus tenellus are narrowly elliptical or lanceolate, and since the plant has an almost feather-like appearance, it is most likely that they will overlay each other in the tank.

Pygmy Chain Sword (Echinodorus tenellus) Care Guide – Planting, Growing, and Propagation emersed form flowerThe emersed form of this plant is ideal for paludariums and terrariums, they possess leaves that are distinctively divided into the petiole (leaf stalk) and narrowly lanceolate leaves.

Ideally, the plant produces petioles about 3 inches (about 7 cm) long; each petiole topped with a lanceolate leaf about an inch long.

In addition, they develop a floral stalk at the tip of which there is one single umbel of several white flowers typically 3.5 mm in diameter.

On the contrary, when Pygmy chain sword is cultivated submersed, the plant tends to lose the petioles, and lanceolate leaves that can reach 10 cm (4 inches) would be produced.

Submersed leaves are very narrow (narrower than emersed form), pointed, and they have an olive green, purple or reddish coloration. Note that the pygmy chain sword plant can change color depending on the conditions of the tank, which in this case is the intensity of artificial lighting.

Pygmy chain sword has about 10 – 15 stems per bunch and these are arranged in whorls, it propagates vegetatively by runners which spread all over the bottom of the tank to form a beautiful lawn.

There are several varieties or forms of Echinodorus tenellus, but the common ones are the standard variety and Echinodorus tenellus “parvulum” which has light green leaves that are not so narrow. Both varieties are cultivated in the aquarium as foreground plants.

Pygmy chain sword vs Dwarf Sagittaria

Pygmy chain sword (Echinodorus tellenus) is often confused and sold as Dwarf Sagittaria (Sagittaria subulata, read the guide about this plant here). It is very easy to make a mistake, especially, then they are small.

However, fully-grown Pygmy chain sword and Sagittaria subulata have different sizes and colorations.

  Pygmy chain sword Dwarf Sagittaria
Size Up to 10 cm (4 inches) Up to 15 cm (6 inches)
Leaves Narrow leaves
(0.1 inches or 3 mm in width)
Wider leaves (0.2 inches or 5 mm in width)
Color Can vary (from dark to light with a purple or reddish tint) bright light green

Tank Requirements and Water Parameters

Tank size:

This plant is not recommended for nano tanks (because of relatively fast and uncontrollable growth). Therefore, the recommended tank size for growing the Pygmy chain sword is a minimum of 10 gallons (~40 L).

Water type, Temperature, Hardness, and pH:

Temperature: The plant should be kept at a temperature of between 22 – 26 °C (72 – 79 °F), which is regarded as the optimal temperature for its growth. Regardless, the plant will thrive in tanks with cooler temperatures but that might hamper on its ability to form runners.

pH: Pygmy chain sword thrives best in waters with optimal pH values 6.5 – 7.5.

Hardness: The plant is tolerant of a wide range of water hardness conditions. Thus it can grow in soft to hard water without problems.


To grow the Pygmy chain sword successfully, you are required to provide moderate-high lighting using full-spectrum bulbs.

Note: This plant tends to stay smaller under high light and a little bit higher under moderate light.

Pygmy Chain Sword (Echinodorus tenellus) Care Guide – Planting, Growing, and Propagation redThe availability of intense lighting allows it to attain a reddish tint and proliferate well in your aquarium substrate. In addition, you are meant to maintain a photoperiod of up to 12 hours daily, or else the carpet will become sparse.

Read more about it in my article “Advanced Guide to Planted Tank Lighting”.


Pygmy chain sword is a heavy root-feeder, and as such, it requires a nutrient-rich substrate to thrive.

If you are planning to grow this plant in sand or fine gravel, the substrate needs to be supplemented with root tabs so as to provide essential nutrients to the plant.

Some recommended soil substrates for the Pygmy chain sword (links to check the price on Amazon):

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

Co2 and Fertilization:

Pygmy chain sword can grow without CO2 injection, on the other hand, the addition of fertilizers is a necessity.

Application of liquid fertilizers; especially those rich in macronutrients and iron will help the plant stay lush and healthy. In the same vein, the addition of root tabs to the sand or gravel substrate is vital because of the nutrients it supplies.

Important: If you keep shrimp in the tank with the Pygmy chain sword, I would highly recommend reading my articles:
CO2 in a Planted Tank Guide
CO2 in a Shrimp Tank

How Copper Affects Dwarf Shrimp
Shrimp Safe Plant Fertilizers
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 Pygmy Chain Sword

Pygmy chain sword is a fast-growing plant, and its tolerance and ease of care make it an excellent choice for beginners in the hobby. Caring for this plant is easy, you just need to provide ample lighting and fertilizers for proper nourishment of the foliage.

Forming a lush green carpet is one of the main reasons why hobbyists cultivate Pygmy chain sword in the first place, and one can encourage vigorous growth of the carpet through fertilization; making sure to add root tabs to the substrate and applying liquid fertilizers directly to the water column.

Note: The plant benefits more from the application of fertilizers in the substrate since it is a heavy root-feeder. However, dosing the tank water with liquid fertilizers sparingly will aid its growth too.

Regular pruning is another important care requirement for this sword species as it is a fast grower, hence there is a need for constant pruning of overgrown shoots and excess runners in order to keep the carpet in good shape.

A healthy-looking, the compact carpet will add a unique dimension to your aquascape, so do not forget to cut back excess foliage regularly and dispose the clipped stems properly.

Furthermore, you should ensure that the plants are not lacking any essential nutrient(s), make sure to dose the much needed macronutrients and trace elements like iron and manganese to prevent a deficiency that may result in discoloration of the vivid green stems.

Lastly, make sure to perform partial water changes weekly to maintain good water quality and replenish some needed trace elements.

Planting and Propagation of Pygmy Chain Sword

One can cultivate Pygmy chain sword on the foreground to fill up the area and adorn the aquarium with a fresh, attractive carpet. Anyway, this can be achieved by dividing the bunch into smaller clumps or portions using your bare hands.

Afterward, take the small clumps one after another and plant them in an enriched substrate or a sand/gravel substrate. Place the portions in the substrate; at least 1½ – 2 inches (3 – 5 cm) deep to contain its delicate roots, and space them out properly for a better spread/coverage.

You can use a pair of tweezers (link to check the price on Amazon) to gently place the stems into the substrate to avoid damage.

Provide intense lighting to facilitate the growth and development of shoots, and in no distant time, the plant will establish itself in the substrate with its extensive root system. Additionally, make sure to place root tabs in the substrate bed for nutrition.

Pygmy chain sword propagates by sending out runners that creep along the aquarium substrate, and these runners give rise to numerous daughter plants that can be clipped and replanted in the tank.

Note: Echinodorus sp. have a tendency to send runners jumping up out of the substrate! By doing so, the plant can easily cross any obstacle and grow, literally, in any spot of the tank. Keep that in mind, because it is not possible to keep it in one spot.

Also, the Pygmy chain sword reproduces by seeds which are freely produced in emersed plants, however, this is not viable in plants grown submersed.

Note: the Pygmy chain sword is a good plant for a Dry Start Method.

Problems Associated With Pygmy Chain Sword

Emersed to submersed: This is a common problem shown by emersed grown plants when transferred to an aquatic habitat.

If you cultivate an emersed Pygmy chain sword plant, you will witness the leaves melt as the plant gradually transitions to submersed form. When the plant is through with this phase, it will establish in the tank and send out multiple runners on the aquarium floor.

Relocation: In spite of their small size, the root system of the Pygmy chain sword is pretty huge. Therefore, if you ever decide to remove or relocate the plant, you should be very careful or you will pull up a big part of your substrate.

Algae: The leaves of the Pygmy chain sword acts as a magnet for algae growth, and this is caused by excessive lighting. To curb this, you can either choose to decrease the light intensity/photoperiod, dose liquid carbon in the tank water, or introduce cleaners i.e. algae-eating fish and inverts (dwarf shrimp, or snails) to polish off the algae.

Read more in my articles:

Yellowing of leaves: This is mostly triggered by a deficiency in iron. Ensure that the tank water has enough iron content to prevent a case of transparent or yellow foliage. For this purpose, you can make use of a good iron supplement formulated especially for aquarium plants.

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

Benefits of Pygmy Chain Sword

Aquascape: It is an excellent ground-cover plant. Pygmy chain sword is one of the great choices for aquascapes. It can be an excellent decorative addition for jungle aquascape. It forms a dense and lush green carpet that complements the aesthetics of an aquarium.

Shelter: The lush green carpet provides shelter for bottom-dwelling fish, fry, and shrimp. This plant is a great spawning medium for egg scatterers to lay their eggs.

Foraging place: Pygmy chain sword also serves as a foraging ground for inverts— shrimp and snails. This plant will be an additional place for the growth of biofilm, which is an ideal first food for newly hatched fry and shrimplets.

Oxygenation: The plant helps in oxygenating and filtering the aquarium water by means of photosynthesis.

Removal of excess nutrients: Because of its relatively fast growth rate, the Pygmy chain sword is capable of absorbing toxins from the water.

Prevents gas pockets: Pygmy chain sword has a well-developed root system that will help to break up anaerobic pockets in the substrate.
Note: Hydrogen sulfide pockets (H2S, the gas smells like rotten eggs) can be really dangerous to your fish or shrimp. 

Pygmy Chain Sword and Compatible Tankmates

The Pygmy chain sword should be kept with docile freshwater fish and inverts. It’s important to have species that will rummage for tiny food particles, debris, and algae films present on the thick carpet.


Marsilea hirsuta is best kept with small, peaceful community fish such as Bleeding heart Tetra, Neon Tetra, Killifish, Swordtails, White Mountain Minnows, Zebra Danio, Cherry Barb, Sunburst Platy, Endlers, Mollies, Otocinclus CatfishPygmy Cory Catfish,


Inverts are not left out, you should consider species that prefer the same water parameters (mostly pH), for example, Crystal red shrimp, Blue bolt shrimp, Caridina cf. babaulti, etc. 

Freshwater snails:

Once again, ornamental snails should not be kept in a tank with low PH for a long time. It will negatively affect their shell. However, if your pH is close to 7.0, it is possible to keep almost any snail or dwarf shrimp you like. For example, Japanese trapdoor snailsRamshorn snailsNerite snailsMalaysian Trumpet snailsBlack Devil Snails, Asolene spixi, Rabbit Snails, etc.).

Avoid or Be Careful

Considering its very fast growth, Pygmy chain sword can also be kept with plant-nipping fish species, but not the boisterous ones that may attack their huge root network. However avoid species that may find the plant too palatable, e.g. like Koi fish, Goldfish, Oscars, Rainbow, Jack Dempsey, Clown loaches, African Cichlids. These species can really cause problems in the planted tanks.

Pygmy chain sword and most types of crayfish or freshwater crabs are not a good combination as well. These animals will cut, eat, and uproot everything in the tank. So, keep it in mind.

Buying Pygmy Chain Sword

Pygmy Chain Sword (Echinodorus tenellus) Care Guide – Planting, Growing, and Propagation buyPygmy chain sword is widely available in local fish stores; it costs about $5 – $10 or more for a potted bunch and two pots might just be enough to aquascape a whole tank.

When purchasing this plant, be wary of specimens with discoloration and other signs of bad health condition. Make sure to obtain plants with lush green leaves and healthy roots and be rest assured that they will thrive. Also, there are tissue culture variants of this plant and those are more viable since they are free from pathogens and pests.

Quarantine Pygmy Chain Sword

Do not forget to quarantine Pygmy chain sword before putting it into your aquarium!

  • The plant can have parasites, pests like snails, or even predators (dragonfly, damsefly nymphs, etc.).
  • It could also be treated with chemicals (pesticide) to remove parasites, snails, etc. However, these chemicals are extremely poisonous to fish, shrimp, and other invertebrates.

To find out more, read my articles:  

How to Remove Snails from a Shrimp Tank.
How to Quarantine and Disinfect Aquarium Plants.
Pesticides in Shrimp Tanks. Plants Quarantine.

In Conclusion

Pygmy chain sword is much desired by beginner and experienced hobbyists who wish to create nice, green carpets in their planted tanks. The plant forms a dense carpet on the bottom of your tank, and this serves as a refuge/hiding spots for dwarf shrimp and fish fry.

For improved aesthetics, you can cultivate the Pygmy chain sword alongside its relative— the Amazon sword to add more depth and perspective to your aquascape. In addition, you can add plants like Red tiger lotus and Rotala rotundifolia to introduce red accents that will complement the greens.

Overall, the Pygmy chain sword is a great plant and we are certain that you will appreciate the look of the luxuriant carpet formed by it.

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