Terrestrial Plants in Aquariums: The Natural Nitrate Removers

One of the challenges many aquarists face is the control and reduction of nitrates in their freshwater systems. While traditional methods include water changes and specialized filter media, another avenue gaining popularity is the use of terrestrial plants. This technique not only offers functional benefits in terms of nitrate reduction but also introduces a unique aesthetic appeal to the setup.

The Nitrate Concern in Freshwater Aquariums

Nitrates are the end product of the nitrogen cycle in aquatic systems, following the breakdown of ammonia and nitrite by beneficial bacteria. Though they are less toxic than their predecessors, elevated nitrate levels can still cause several issues:

  • Stress to fish, leading to suppressed immune systems.
  • Promotion of unsightly and potentially harmful algae blooms.
  • Overall degradation of the aquatic environment, leading to long-term health concerns for the inhabitants.

Why Terrestrial Plants?

Terrestrial plants have evolved to absorb nutrients from soil but are equally adept at drawing them from water when their roots are submerged. Their efficiency in removing nitrates stems from their requirement for nitrogen, a key element used in building proteins and other essential molecules for growth.

Popular Terrestrial Plants for Nitrate Removal

  1. Pothos (Epipremnum aureum): A hardy houseplant that can grow with its roots submerged. Its fast growth rate makes it an efficient nitrate remover.

  2. Peace Lily (Spathiphyllum sp.): Often positioned in aquarium top filters, peace lilies are effective in nitrate uptake and add a graceful aesthetic with their white blooms.

  3. Lucky Bamboo (Dracaena sanderiana): Popular for its tall, straight stalks, lucky bamboo's roots can absorb nitrates and other nutrients when submerged.

  4. Spider Plant (Chlorophytum comosum): With its characteristic green and white-striped leaves, spider plants are not only visually appealing but also effective at nitrate removal.

  5. Umbrella Papyrus (Cyperus alternifolius): More suited for larger setups or ponds, these plants can take up significant amounts of nitrates with their sprawling root system.

  6. Aluminum Plant (Pilea cadierei): Their silver-patterned leaves offer a beautiful contrast, and their roots efficiently extract nitrates.

Considerations and Tips

  1. Positioning: Ensure only the roots are submerged. Exposing the foliage to aquarium water may lead to rot.

  2. Growth Control: Some plants, like pothos and spider plants, can grow rapidly and might need regular trimming.

  3. Lighting: While most of these plants can thrive in indirect light, ensuring they receive adequate light will bolster their growth and nitrate uptake.

  4. Not a Replacement: While terrestrial plants aid in nitrate removal, they should complement, not replace, regular water changes and other maintenance tasks.


Integrating terrestrial plants into freshwater aquariums offers a dual benefit of enhanced visual appeal and functional nitrate management. By understanding the specific needs and advantages of each plant type, aquarists can create a harmonious balance between aesthetics and a healthy environment, all while harnessing nature's innate capacity for water purification.

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