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Plants with African Cichlids

One of the great generalists in the hobby, Al Castro, writes:

The question of plants with African cichlids is a lot more complex
than some may realize.  First, and foremost, Africa is a huge
continent with a vast variety of habitats but for aquaristic
purposes, there are those fish from the Great Rift Lakes of Eastern
Africa and a vast assemblage of very interesting fish that do not
come from the Rift Lakes.  Remember, Anubias and Bolbitis
heteroclitus are both African plant species and they take "normal"
waters as do most non-Rift Lake fishes.

The very popular Rift Lake cichlids that so many shops carry are
from three major lake systems and they pose some problems for
aquarists interested in plants but these problems are easily

The least problem seems to be the "new batch" of cichlids from Lake
Victoria.  The water in the lake is not outrageously alkaline nor
salty so that a wide variety of plants can fit into the tank.
Floating plants are simple ( and who cares if some get eaten ).
Bunch plants are generally too tender to withstand the abuse
presented by heavy bodied cichlids so this type of plant should be
used sparingly but they can give an interesting contrast to the
heavier bodied specimen plants.  Put bunch plants in pots so that
they can be rotated in and out of the aquarium as needed.  Specimen
plants of a wide variety can be used, especially if potted, but it
would be foolish to put expensive plants in with cichlids that may
decide that the decorations might be just the thing for a midnight

Lake Tanganyika poses more of a challenge because the fish only
thrive in clean, warm, hard alkaline water.  Temperatures of 75 to
80 are not too difficult on the fish nor the plants but when the pH
reaches 8.5 to 9.0, it is much more difficult to find plants that
can tolerate the occasional robust body plowing through as the
plants become brittle.  Increased hardnesses have a similar effect
on the plants.  There are a few plants that do tolerate these
conditions, namely; several varieties of Vallisneria, Ceratophyllum,
Microsorium ( Java fern ) and the nearly indestructible Anubias
varieties that grow so slowly they may have died but haven't figured
it out yet.  As with keeping the Victorian species, specimen ( or
rooted ) plants that are kept with Tanganyikan cichlids should be
kept in pots to protect the roots from any digging that the cichlids
may attempt.

Lake Malawi poses the greatest difficulty for setting up a planted
aquarium.  Most people automatically think of the group of cichlids
called "mbuna" when they think of Malawi cichlids.  These are a
large assemblage of rock dwelling species with mouths adapted to
scrape the sheet algaes off of the rocks in the lake.  And they are
normally fed a diet high in vegetable matter.  Tell you anything
special about these fish??

No, not really!  I had a tank at Steinhart Aquarium ( 320 gallons )
that was devoted to these fish.  For many years it had live plants
in it.  Granted that they were hardy plants but they were, none the
less, plants.  It was a tall tank and I had success growing both the
jungle Val, Vallisneria gigantea and the much shorter Vallisneria
spiralis.  I also used Ceratophyllum demersum and/or the floating
form of water sprite, Ceratopsis cornuta as surface cover.  The
water sprite did not fare particularly well initially with the mbuna
because they seemed to like the taste of it but I eventually added
some of the red-tailed goodeid, Xenotoca eiseni, to the tank and any
time the cichlids ventured into the upper portion of the aquarium to
eat veggies, the goodeid would dart out of a clump to bite the
cichlid in the nose.  It didn't take the cichlid long to learn that
they didn't eat plants with the goodeids in the neighborhood.

Just so that you know, there are other types of cichlids in Lake
Malawi.  There are many, many other types of cichlids in Lake
Malawi, maybe too many types of cichlids in Lake Malawi.  It is much
easier to keep live plants in with these other types of cichlids if
you remember that all cichlids like to move gravel and if you plan
on putting plants with them, put the plants in pots or find a way to
affix the plants to rocks or driftwood.  Lake Malawi has water with a
higher mineral content than the Bay Area and it has a pH in the mid
to upper 8's but many plants tolerate these conditions and, if they
aren't eaten, do well in a Malawi tank.

Hope this helps you more than it confuses you.

Al Castro

Dave Gomberg, San Francisco            mailto:gomberg at wcf_com