10 Best Aquarium Plants that Grow in Gravel

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Soil is the most commonly recommended substrate for aquarium plants. It has the perfect grain size and density to keep the plants anchored without suffocating the roots.

Soil is also rich in nutrients that root-feeding plants require to thrive.

But you don’t have to switch to soil to keep live plants. You can make plain gravel a hospitable medium for aquarium plants with a few tweaks and tricks.

Choosing suitable plant species is the most important. Below, you’ll find ten of the best plants for a gravel aquarium.

1. Vallisneria

  • Care level: Easy
  • Growth rate: Moderate to fast
  • Water parameters: 68-82°F, 6.5-8.0 pH, 4-18 dGH
  • Lighting: Low to high

Vallisnerias are tall, grassy plants that grow up to 11-20 inches in length. The leaves differ depending on the subspecies.

Vallisneria can be either narrow or wide-leaf, with a straight or wavy shape. Most species are a bright, rich green color.

Vallisneria is one of the most forgiving and beginner-friendly plants. It doesn’t need much supplementation and has low CO2 needs.

It can adapt to a wide range of aquarium conditions and grows in anything from plain gravel to sand substrates.

Given its large size and medium to rapid growth, this plant is best suited for the background region of the aquarium.

It’s the perfect plant if you want to turn your aquarium into a lush fish jungle.

2. Sagittaria

  • Care level: Easy
  • Growth rate: Fast
  • Water parameters: 68-82°F, 6.0-8.0 pH, 3-15 dGH
  • Lighting: Medium

Sagittaria is a medium-sized aquarium plant that grows up to 4-6 inches high. It has bright green narrow leaves that grow in a rosette pattern.

Given its considerable size and bushy growth, this plant looks best in the mid-ground of the aquarium.

The unique thing about Sagittaria is that it can grow both submersed and partially emerged as long as its roots are planted.

When the plant reaches the surface, it sprouts small white flowers.

Sagittaria is quite hardy and low-maintenance. It grows well in gravel, with a caveat. This plant is primarily a root feeder and is predisposed to iron deficiency.

You’ll have to use an enriched gravel substrate for aquarium plants or add root tabs to prevent the plant from turning yellow.

Other than that, Sagittaria has low fertilizer and CO2 needs.

3. Anubias

  • Care level: Easy
  • Growth rate: Slow
  • Water parameters: 72-82°F, 6.0-8.0 pH, 3-15 dGH
  • Lighting: Low to medium

Anubias is a genus that encompasses over a dozen plant species. These plants are hardy and have similar water parameters.

But they can differ quite a lot in appearance. Some species grow only 2 inches in size, while others reach heights of up to 40 inches.

Anubias plants have elongated stems and coarse leaves. Leaf shape varies between triangular, heart-shaped, or elongated and pointy.

Like Sagittaria, Anubias may grow partially emersed, sprouting spade-like cream flowers.

Thanks to a slow growth rate, these plant species are very easy to care for and require little to no fertilization and CO2. They do very well in gravel substrates, but you can also attach them to driftwood and other aquarium decorations.

Small and medium-sized Anubias make excellent foreground and midground plants.

4. Java Fern

  • Care level: Easy
  • Growth rate: Slow to moderate
  • Water parameters: 68–82°F, 6.0-8.0 pH, 4-15 dGH
  • Lighting: Low to medium

The Java Fern is another tall, grassy, and bush-like plant. It grows 6-13 inches high and may reach 8 inches in width.

The leaves are leathery and can be bright to dark green, with dark-colored veins. Various species exist, each with a slightly different leaf shape.

Java Ferns may have narrow leaves, lobed leaves, straight leaves, or somewhat curly leaves.

This plant is easy to keep in a gravel aquarium. You may plant it in the substrate as long as the rhizome stays out of the gravel.

Java Ferns also thrive as floating plants. Since this is a water-column feeder, the quality of the gravel doesn’t matter.

Like other tall plants, Java Ferns work best as mid to background décor.  

5. Lace Plant (Aponogeton madagascariensis)

  • Care level: Difficult
  • Growth rate: Fast
  • Water parameters: 68-75°F, 5.5-7.5 pH, 3-10 dGH
  • Lighting: Medium to high

There is simply nothing like the Lace plant. This is such a unique-looking species. You’d have to see it to believe it exists.

This beautiful plant distinguishes itself from other aquatic plants thanks to its large, oblong, and perforated leaves that look like a lacey fabric.

This very large plant can reach 2 feet in height or more. Its leaves are long, thin, and flexible and range in color from bright green to pale red.

The Lace plant is not beginner-friendly. This is a root feeder with an extremely fast growth cycle; it needs plenty of fertilization and CO2. It can thrive in gravel as long as the substrate is nutrient-rich.

Lace plants need plenty of room, so you’ll need an aquarium of at least 30 gallons or larger.

Even in a large aquarium, Lace plants can easily take over and starve other aquarium plants of resources. This species is best suited as a background plant.

6. Aponogeton Boivinianus

  • Care level: Easy
  • Growth rate: Moderate
  • Water parameters: 70-82°F, 6.0-8.0 pH, 10-18 dGH
  • Lighting: Low to medium

Under favorable conditions, this plant reaches up to 30 inches in height and 19 inches in width. It comes in bulb form and grows thick, elongated leaves in a rosette pattern.

It’s quite similar to other tall, grassy plants, but its leaves have a prominent texture. It looks like a green bubble wrap when seen up close.

This plant has low care requirements and doesn’t need much CO2 or fertilization.

However, its growth cycle can be troublesome. The bulb has a dormant stage when it won’t sprout any new leaves for a while.

Other than that, this plant is easy to keep and grow. It works best as a background decoration, but you may use it in the mid-ground if you have a large tank.

7. Cryptocoryne

  • Care level: Easy to medium
  • Growth rate: Slow
  • Water parameters: 72-82°F, 6.5-7.5 pH, 8-18 dGH
  • Lighting: Low to medium

Cryptocorynes (or Crypts for short) span over 60 different species. There’s a wide variety of plant sizes, leaf shapes, and colors.

Some Crypts only grow up to 2 inches tall, while others reach a height of 19 inches.

Most species have spade-shaped leaves that grow up and outwards. Leaf color varies between green, red, and purple.

Crypts are rhizome plants and heavy root feeders. They need a nutrient-rich gravel substrate, and only the roots should be buried.

Apart from that, Crypts need little to no fertilizers. The ideal spot in the tank depends on the species. Most Crypts are on the medium side and look great as mid-ground plants.

8. Amazon Sword

  • Care level: Easy
  • Growth rate: Moderate
  • Water parameters: 72-82°F, 6.0-8.0 pH, 3-12 dGH
  • Lighting: Medium

Here we have yet another tall plant with a rosette growth pattern. This plant gets its name from its broad, sword-like, and elongated leaves.

Under the right conditions, Amazon Swords may reach 12-23 inches in size and consist of up to 20 leaf whorls. Leaf color ranges from bright to medium-dark green.

The Amazon Swords is a root feeder and develops a large and intricate root system. It requires a light, loosely-packed substrate for optimal root development.

Luckily, gravel is perfect for that. Just remember to add root tabs because Amazon Swords need a nutrient-rich medium.

Since it’s a tall-growing plant with moderate growth, the Amazon Sword’s ideal placement is in the background of the aquarium.

9. Water Sprite

  • Care level: Easy
  • Growth rate: Fast
  • Water parameters: 70-82°F, 6.0-8.0 pH, 3-15 dGH
  • Lighting: Medium to high

The Water Sprite looks somewhat similar to dill. It’s bright green and has thick stems and branched needle-like leaves.

The stems shoot upwards and branch into bushy growths. This plant can grow up to 12 inches or more, but it’s easy to trim without ruining its appearance.

Here’s the best part— Water Sprite is a free-floating, semi-aquatic species. You can use it in virtually any way you want.

Whether fully submersed, partially emersed, planted in gravel, or left floating in the water column, it’s almost impossible for this plant to die.

It also needs little to no fertilizer or CO2. You can use this as a mid-ground or background plant.

10. Bucephalandra

  • Care level: Easy
  • Growth rate: Slow
  • Water parameters: 72-84°F, 5.0-8.0 pH, 5-15 dGH
  • Lighting: Low to high

Bucephalandras (Buce for short) are very popular thanks to their rare appearance. These plants vary in size, color, and shape, but all species share one characteristic.

Buces have tiny pale spots on their leaves thanks to how they photosynthesize.

Buces may be between 1-22 inches in size, with either dark green or violet-blue leaves. Leaf shape ranges from oval to oblong and from straight to wavy.

This plant grows on creeping rhizomes, spreading outwards rather than straight up.

Plants in this genus are primarily water-column feeders. They can thrive in virtually any type of substrate, including plain gravel. You may also attach the rhizomes to other anchoring points like driftwood or rocks.

Most Buce varieties are small and slow-growing; they’re good as foreground and midground plants.

Growing Aquarium Plants in Gravel

Some aquarium plants thrive in just plain gravel, while others need a little extra help.

You’ll maximize your planting success by choosing hardy species like the ones above.

These ten plants can adapt to most aquarium conditions, and most of them are water column feeders.

But with the right technique and a few useful tips, you can keep almost any other plant in a gravel substrate.

Here are some tips to make the best of a gravel substrate when planting:

– Get the right gravel size

Gravel comes in varying grain sizes, and what you choose for planting matters. Large-grain gravel is heavy and can impede root growth. Chunky rock gravel sifts easily, leading to uprooted plants.

Ideally, the grain size should be 3-8 mm. Pea gravel is a good option; it’s the perfect size for anchoring plants without sifting or impacting the roots.

– Get the right substrate depth

Generally, your gravel should be at least 2.5 inches high to provide enough room for the roots to grow and anchor the plant.

Gravel doesn’t compact, so there’s no upper limit to how much you can add. However, going over 4 inches is overkill and doesn’t provide additional benefits for the plants.

– Choose an active gravel substrate

Root feeders get most of their nutrients from the substrate. That’s why nutrient-rich aquarium soil is a popular substrate for planting. Most gravel substrates are inert and void of minerals.

But you can also find complete gravel substrates specifically designed for growing plants. These are on par with soil but still, provide the same look as regular gravel.

– Use root tabs

You don’t need to use soil or active gravel if you don’t want to. You could still keep your favorite gravel substrate. Just remember to supplement the substrate with root tabs.

Root tabs are nutrient-rich fertilizing pills and are super easy to use. Just push the tabs down into the substrate close to the plant’s roots. These are slow-release fertilizers, so you can supplement every three months.

– Add liquid fertilizer

This is another option to feed your plants. Liquid fertilizers provide a high dose of nutrients over a short period.

They work either as a replacement or in conjunction with active gravel. You should use such fertilizers once per week or according to the product package instructions.

– Provide appropriate conditions for the plants to grow

Most plants require at least 8 hours of visible light exposure per day.

You must also ensure the water temperature, hardness, and pH are within the ideal range. Each plant has slightly different requirements, so consult a species profile.


Soil is the best substrate for aquarium plants. However, gravel is an excellent second choice.

With a few tweaks, you can have a thriving planted tank without sacrificing your favorite gravel substrate!

You’ll get the best results when choosing gravel-compatible plants and water column feeders.

The plants I’ve described in this article are all perfect choices. Let me know which one’s your favorite!

Author Image Fabian
I’m Fabian, aquarium fish breeder and founder of this website. I’ve been keeping fish, since I was a kid. On this blog, I share a lot of information about the aquarium hobby and various fish species that I like. Please leave a comment if you have any question.

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