Water Sprite Care Guide – Planting, Growing, and Propagation

Water Sprite (Ceratopteris thalictroides)

One of the commonly used plants in the aquarium hobby is Ceratopteris thalictroides popularly known as Water Sprite. Water Sprite is a floating aquatic fern known for its lush green appearance, minimal maintenance, and easy care. It is a versatile plant that can be grown either emersed or submersed, rooted in the substrate or floated in water column. The plant requires medium-high lighting to grow optimally, and it enhances the beauty and aesthetical look of any tank setup.

In this article, we will provide a care sheet and other useful information you should know about this versatile plant. 

Water Sprite – check out the price on Amazon

Quick Notes about Water Sprite

Common Name Water Sprite
Other Names Indian Fern, Indian Water Fern, Fine Leaf Indian Fern, Water Horn Fern,
Water Stag-horn Fern, Mizuwarabi
Scientific Name Hygrophila difformis (Ruellia difformis and Synnema triflorum)
Difficulty Easy
Lighting Moderate to high
pH 6.0 – 8.0
Water hardness   soft – medium – hard
Temperature (optimal) 22 – 27 C (70– 82 F)
Substrate any / can float
Growth Rate Fast
Growth Conditions
Submerse and Immersed
Placement in Tank Mid to Background 
Height up to 30 cm (~ 12 inches) and more
CO2 Not needed – Low
Propagation Adventitious Plantlet /  Cutting

Interesting fact: Genus name Ceratopteris derived from Greek word ”Keras, Keratos” means “Horn” and “Pretis” means “Fern”: referring to the foliage and to the appearance of this plant. Species name “thalictroides” means the leaves are similar to those of genus Thalictrum.

Taxonomy of Water Sprite

Water Sprite (Ceratopteris thalictroides) in potKingdom: Plantae
Clade: Tracheophytes
Class: Polypodiopsida
Order: Polypodiales
Family: Pteridaceae
Genus: Ceratopteris
Species: Ceratopteris thalictroides

The genus Ceratopteris (Parkeriaceae) is a group of semi-aquatic or aquatic annual ferns distributed in the tropics, subtropics and warm temperate regions. The genus was described by Brongniart in 1821 and included 11 species. Species recognition, however, has been confused due to their high polymorphism. In the extreme, all have been regarded as a single species, Ceratopteris thalictroides.

In 1974 Lloyd published the most comprehensive monograph of Ceratopteris. He combined the eleven species into four:

1) Ceratopteris cornuta
2) Ceratopteris pteridoides
3) Ceratopteris richardii
4) Ceratopteris thalictroides

It is not that easy to see the difference between all these species. For example:

Ceratopteris Cornuta: Found in tropical Africa. The fronds of this species are horn-like, as the name “cornuta” implies. It is thicker and wider than the other species.
Ceratopteris Pteroides: Found in the tropics of America, Africa, Asia, and northern Australia. This species is characterized by round-lobed fronds.

Note: All species of the genus ‘Ceratopteris’ are true ferns. This simply means that they do not produce flowers or seeds rather they reproduce by vegetative means and through the production of spores.

Origin & Habitat of Water Sprite

Ceratopteris thalictroides inhabits tropical regions in almost all the continents of the world. Water sprite is hardy, versatile, and well adapted for life & survival in a wide range of habitats.

The plant can majorly be found in swampy areas, swamp forests, irrigation ponds, irrigation ditches, taro patches, rice paddies, marshes, still and slow moving water bodies in tropical regions. Ceratopteris thalictroides exhibits a degree of seasonality, reaching maturity and shedding spores during the dry season. Unlike other ferns (for example, Java Fern – read more here), Water sprite can thrive in sunny to partially shady parts of water.

Description of Water Sprite

Water Sprite (Ceratopteris thalictroides) leaves

  • Water sprite has a vibrant light green coloration on leaves, stalks, and stems.
  • Stems are thick and slightly darker than the leaves.
  • Leaves are delicate, narrow and feather-like/lace-like.
  • Presence of a central stem and shoots emerging from it.
  • Water sprite is a big plant. It can grow up to 12 inches (30 cm) or more.
  • Presence of long roots that serves as nutrient absorber & anchor on substrates.
  • Branched leaf structure.
  • Water sprite often serves as a midground and background aquarium plant.
  • Thin stalks that bear multiple leaves.
  • Water sprite also exhibits a fast growth rate in most cases.
  • Presence of sporangia that houses the spores. 

Water Parameters / Tank Requirements

Water Sprite is a relatively hardy plant. It can tolerate most water conditions as far as it is healthy and well established in the tank.

Tank size:

Do not even try it in Nano-tanks. Even one Water Sprite will overrun your tank in no time.

The recommended tank size for this species is a minimum of 10 gallons. Ideally, you should go for a larger tank since the Water Sprite can fill up the tank easily because they grow very fast and big.

Water type, Temperature, Hardness and pH:

The following water parameters should be maintained in the tank to ensure healthy growth and survival of the Water Sprite plant:

Temperature: This is a plant of the lowland tropics. To replicate their natural environment, the Water Sprite will need a water temperature in the range of 70 – 82° F (22 – 27 C) for proper growth. At temperatures below 20 C (68 F), its growth significantly slows down, and the leaves become smaller.

Water pH: A water pH of 6.0 – 8.0 will do just great for Water Sprite. However, this plant can tolerate pH value of 5.5 – 8 pretty well.

Water Hardness: In general, Water Sprite does not care about hardness. Nonetheless, for optimal growth and development of this plant species, maintain water hardness in the range of  2 – 15 GH, 3 – 8 KH.

Lighting:

Water Sprite needs medium-high lighting conditions. It grows slower under low light conditions and faster in high lighting. The growth of this species is dependent on light intensity. Water Sprite are quite variable in their growth and appearance depending on light and other conditions.

Water flow:

This plant thrives in still and slow-moving water bodies, maintain such condition in the tank. Keep the plants away from fast-moving currents and direct water flow in the tank as it will damage the plant. 

Substrate:

The root system of Water Sprite is tender and brittle. Therefore, soil/coarse sand/fine gravel is most suitable as a substrate.

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

Supplements:

I have seen a lot of people suggest using fertilizers, CO2, and other things to keep Water Sprite healthy. Actually, in most cases, CO2 and fertilizers are not needed for healthy growth, but adding them will significantly increase the growth rate.

Important: If you keep shrimp in the tank, I would highly recommend reading my articles:
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. In my article about copper, I also refer to the most popular shrimp-safe plant fertilizers. 

Planting Water Sprite

Water Sprite is an interesting and beautiful addition to planted tanks. This plant is best suited for midground or background placement in the aquarium.

  • Rooting into Substrate

Water Sprite (Ceratopteris thalictroides) in substrateTo plant Water Sprite, all you need to do is to obtain healthy plants or seedlings and cultivate them deep into the substrate.

Start with 2 or 3 inches of substrate (gravel or sand). Dig a small hole in the substrate and place the plant into it. Next, you will need small rocks to anchor the roots firmly to the substrate. If you don’t anchor the plants, it won’t stay firm in the substrate and it will float out at intervals.

Note:  At the same time, do not completely bury the roots in your substrate or else the new growth won’t be able to grow. The new growth starts at the base of the plant.

The plants have tender roots and stems so you should handle them gently to avoid damage. Water Sprite can equally be attached to porous surfaces like lava rock or driftwood. The plant will gradually anchor itself and grow successfully.

  • Floating

Water Sprite (Ceratopteris thalictroides) floatingThis plant can also be floated on the water surface instead of rooting it in the substrate. To float Water Sprite, you have to immerse stems in the water column. After a few days, the plant will sprout roots that will hang down from the plants, these roots enables the plant to absorb nutrients from the water column.

When floated in the water column, Water Sprite grows taller and develops wider & flatter leaves.  Rooted, they can be extremely ferny and delicate. The floating plants will grow and develop thin roots that can trap bits of edible matter, which makes it a great foraging ground for shrimp.

Note: The roots of Water Sprite will attach themselves to the decor as the roots will grow very long. If there is anything you don’t want it attached to keep this in mind when you place it in the tank.

If you need more floating plants, which are easy to take care of, read my article “Top 7 Floating Plants for Beginners”.

Water Sprite and Propagation

Water Sprite propagates through adventitious shoots. The plant forms small buds / plantlets that will break off and root themselves in the substrate or water column.

During this process, you have to remove some of the plantlets from the tank if they are excess in order to prevent the tank from getting overcrowded and discourage competition for resources.

The plant can also be propagated by cutting mature stems which possess lots of healthy leaves. These stems can now be planted in the substrate, the cuttings will develop its own roots and grow into a whole new plant.

Water Sprite also reproduces through spores but this is not viable in a tank setup. 

Maintenance and Care of Water Sprite 

Generally, Water Sprite is easy to maintain and requires minimal care. The plant grows fast and covers a huge area of the tank in no distant time. You need to trim the stems from time to time. When trimming the plant, make sure that you do not trim the main stem, which emerges from the roots to avoid harming the plant.

After trimming, remove the stems from the tank for disposal or planting in a new tank.

Water Sprite grows rapidly and fertilization can be required as they will use up much nutrients from the tank, which can lead to nutritional deficiencies. 

Uses / Benefits of Water Sprite

Water Sprite (Ceratopteris thalictroides) in aquariumAquascaping: Ceratopteris thalictroides is an attractive and decorative plant with vibrant lace-like leaves that complement the aesthetical look of an aquarium. Water Sprite serves as a midground or background plant and as such should be placed accordingly.

The plant has a distinct large size and adds a lot of green to the tank. You can combine water Sprite with plants of varying colors to create an impressive contrast in the tank.

Hiding place for fish & fry: The large size of the Water Sprite and its dense growth patterns makes it ideal as a hiding spot and shade for small fish, fry and shrimp. By providing a lot of cover, Water Sprite will increase your shrimplet survival rate.

Reduces nitrates: Water Sprite takes up a lot of nutrients from the tank water through its leaves. Plants like Water Sprite helps to the keep nitrate level under control. Basically, you can call it a floating filter.
Read my article “Nitrates in Shrimp Tank. How to Lower them”

Outcompetes algae: Adding some to a tank, Water Sprite quickly outcompete most algae.

Interesting fact: In Madagascar, people eat Water Sprite as vegetable and raw as a salad in Micronesia. Fresh juice of leaves is applied on fresh wounds effectively to stop bleeding immediately. In a grounded form people use it to treat skin diseases.

Problems Associated with Water Sprite

Pale growth: This occurs when there is iron deficiency. The Water Sprite gradually turns pale and less vibrant. This condition can be corrected by the addition of soluble iron to the tank water. Iron also promotes the formation of healthy and brightly colored leaves.

Holes in leaves: The presence of holes in older leaves of the plant is as a result of potassium deficiency. Dosing Water Sprite with potassium supplements can help to combat this.

Leaf Browning: When browning of leaves occurs, this is mostly due to poor fertilization. To reverse this condition, you can use root tabs e.g. Seachem Flourish Tabs Growth Supplement.

Algae: Growth of algae is caused by the presence of too much nutrients in the tank water and too much light illumination. To tackle this, cycle the tank water regularly, tone down on the light intensity and trim stems bearing algae for outright disposal. If your tank set up allows, you can add Amano shrimp, Nerite snail, and Otocinclus Catfish. They are great algae eaters. Together they will do a phenomenal job.

For more information, you can read “Types of Algae. Best Algae Eating Team”.

Water Wisteria vs Water Sprite

In the fish-keeping world, some aquarium plants share striking resemblance amongst themselves: Water Sprite & Water Wisteria (read the guide). is a good example. Both plants have a similar appearance, which is quite uncanny. They have a vibrant lush green coloration and a general feather-like look.

Water Sprite and Water Wisteria are versatile plants. They can either be planted deep into the substrate or floated on the water column for growth.

The difference between these species is that while Water Wisteria (Hygrophila Difformis) is a flowering plant that has seeds, Water Sprite (Ceratopteris thalictroides) is an aquarium plant that bears spores for reproduction. Growth rate of both species is similar (fast growth) but the Water Sprite will outgrow Water Wisteria in most cases.

Water Wisteria is a little more broad-leafed than the Water Sprite. Also, Sprite is sturdier and tougher than the Wisteria. Here are some points to take note of:

Water wisteria Water sprite
Similarities
  • They both possess fine feathered leaves which possess a bright green color.
  • Both plants have narrow leaf structure but that of the water sprite is more thinner and hairier.
  • Both are vascular plants that have lignified tissues for conducting water and nutrients.
  • Water sprite and water wisteria both exhibit fast growth rate.
Differences
  • Water wisteria is a flowering plant when allowed to grow above the water line.
  • As an aquatic fern, Water sprite is does not possess flowers.
  • Water wisteria has distinguishable stems with leaves and roots coming off the nodes.
  • Water sprite has a central growing point or rhizomes where individual leaves or shoots grow out from.
  • It has thicker leaves
  • The leaves are thinner.
  • Less bushy
  • Very bushy
  • Water wisteria has the ability to exhibit heterophylly (morphology/change in is leaf structure in response to stimuli).
  • Water sprite cannot change leaves.

Water sprite and Water wisteria - Similarities and Differences

Water Sprite and “Tankmates”

Water Sprite is undemanding and hardy, it is suitable for community tanks that inhabit freshwater fish, inverts and plants. Their leaves provide good cover for shrimp, shy fish and fry to hide.

Water Sprite is compatible with a lot of aquatic plants including Anachris, Anubias, Bucephalandra, Cryptocorynes, Hornwort, Java fern, Water Wisteria.

You can easily keep Water Sprite in tanks containing the following aquarium animal species:

These fishes and shrimp appreciate the shade that this plant provides.

Be careful with snails that can harm or try to devour the plant. Check out the list of freshwater snails here.

Do not keep Water Sprite with shrimp like – Bamboo shrimp, Vampire shrimp. Those shrimp will not damage the plant. The problem is that their unique feeding technique requires water flow and Water Sprite does not like it.

Avoid keeping the plant with Gouramis, Goldfish, and herbivorous cichlids. These fish species are known to eat the leaves of Water Sprite, same applies to snails that will nibble on the leaves. 

Buying Water Sprite

Water Sprite is readily available for purchase in pet and aquarium stores. It costs between $3 and $10 depending on the vendor, you can also source for Water Sprite online. While buying Water Sprite for aquarium usage, you should take note of the following points:

  • Vibrant green leaves and stems signifies good health. Plants with pale color are not very healthy.
  • Presence of holes in the leaves is a sign of poor health and nutritional deficiency.
  • Discoloration in the leaves is a sign of ill health.
  • Presence of a long, abundant and study root system is a good sign.
  • Presence of tears, cuts, and tips in leaves is a red flag, stay away from plants having such.
  • The plant should have a strong stem that can support it in an upright position.

Quarantine Water Sprite 

Do not forget to quarantine any new plants before put them into your tank!

  • They can have parasites, pests like snail or even predators (dragonfly, damsefly nymphs, etc.).
  • They can be treated with chemicals (pesticide) to remove parasites, snails, etc. However, these chemicals are extremely poisonous to shrimp and invertebrates.

To find out more, read my articles:  

Dragonfly and Damselfly Nymphs. Monsters in Shrimp Tanks. Treatment
How to Remove Snails from a Shrimp Tank.
How to Quarantine and Disinfect Aquarium Plants.
Pesticides in Shrimp Tanks. Plants Quarantine.

In Conclusion

The plant that never dies. Water Sprite is a hardy plant and one of the best freshwater plants you can cultivate in the tank. It grows fast, propagates easily and can live for a long period.

You can cultivate Water Sprite alongside Water Wisteria or Monte Carlo for an aesthetically pleasing and beautiful jungle effect in the tank. Water Sprite is a versatile plant and can adapt to a wide range of tank conditions and tank setups with ease.

I highly recommend this species to anyone who is thinking of a planted tank, both for its hardiness and for its beauty.. 

Water Sprite – check out the price on Amazon

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