Live plants were the norm back in the days when I set up my first aquarium. We've come a long way since then. The fish keeper of today can opt for very attractive plastic and silk plants that come close to passing for the real thing. So what is the best choice for aquarium plants, real or artificial? Even the most experienced fish keepers don't agree. Why? Because there isn't a right or wrong answer. Ultimately it comes down to being a matter of the preference of the aquarium owner.
I confess I still have a penchant for live plants. Nothing matches the pride one feels in showing others your well-crafted aquarium of stunning live plants. However, pride isn't the primary reason I prefer live plants. I believe live plants provide a more natural habitat for fish and offer benefits that cannot be duplicated by artificial plants.
Unlike their plastic counterparts, live plants grow and respire. During daylight hours they take in carbon dioxide and give off oxygen, thus contributing to a healthy habitat. Keep in mind that at night this process reverses. In heavily planted tanks carbon dioxide levels can rise significantly, while the oxygen levels drop off. If fish are observed hanging close to the top of the water and gasp for air, it may be a sign that oxygen levels are dropping too low at night. In those cases, it might be necessary to run an airstone at night.
Live plants also harbor bacteria that aid in the breakdown of wastes. A well maintained planted aquarium often needs very little chemical filtration. However, there is a flip side to the coin. If plants decay and the debris is not removed quickly, they can produce too much waste, which in turn can be harmful to the fish. Further, it is possible for live plants to carry harmful pests such as snails, and parasites that cause disease.
Another important factor to consider is that plastic is inedible, but live plants can be a tasty meal for your fish. This is especially helpful if keeping fish that are herbivores, as they require frequent feedings. Live plants also make the aquarium look appealing, and can inhibit algae growth by reducing nitrates. On the downside, plants that are nibbled on extensively can detract from the appearance of the aquarium. So choose your plant and fish combinations wisely.
Absorbs CO2 (in daylight)
Gives off O2 (in daylight)
Harbors beneficial bacteria
Serves as a food source
Inhibits algae growth
Can cause O2 deficiency at night
Creates waste when decayed
Can carry parasites
Not easy to clean
Requires good lighting
Artificial plants have become so sophisticated that they rival real plants in appearance. Unlike live plants, they will not die, grow too large, or become tattered and unattractive. If they become dirty or covered with algae, they can easily be removed and cleaned. They can even be disinfected with bleach, to assure that no harmful bacteria or pests remain. Artificial plants have no light requirements, as opposed to living plants which often require lighting beyond what the average fish keeper has for their aquarium.
Silk and plastic plants come in a wide range of sizes and colors and are easily obtainable year round. Because they are never in an aquarium before you purchase them, they will not bring in pests or parasites from other places. They will not decay and foul the tank. Granted, they will also not contribute to the habitat in the way live plants do, but they are an excellent option - especially for the beginner. Artificial plants are also an ideal choice for fish that are prone to uproot or eat live plants.
Does not affects O2 levels
Does not create wastes
Does not carry parasites
Easily removed and cleaned
Does not need special lighting
Does not absorb CO2
Does not give off O2
Does not absorb toxins
Does not carry bacteria
Cannot be used as a food source
Doesn't inhibit algae growth
As you can see there are plenty of pros and cons for each option. A well planned and maintained aquarium can be beautiful with either real or artificial plants. Ultimately it's up to the personal preference of the owner.