Aquarium plants: State of the art production


Graeme Edwards looks at how your aquarium plants are currently produced in nature — and how one company is creating its stock in the laboratory...

The questions we ask when purchasing aquatic plants can be similar to when buying our own food. Do we go organic? Mass produced? State of the art? Which to choose?

Anyone going out to buy new plants should buy the best quality they can afford — as scrimping and saving doesn’t always give you the desired results.

Aquatic plants are produced in two main ways. In the tropical regions of the Far East and Malaysia they are created in a very different manner to how they would be in Europe and the rest of the western world.

Most aquatic plants are from the Far East where the humid environment and long, intense daylight hours encourage outdoor growth. Huge concrete-lined ponds are full of emersed and submersed aquatic plants as part of large scale but cost effective production.

The ponds each have a layer of substrate at their base to anchor the plants. There they can then be harvested but, rather than making pots of plants, growers take cuttings. This is why you often receive cuttings in the post rather than full pots of plants.

Where plants require different light or environmental requirements, the farmers provide shade by using garden netting or mesh over large booms of cane or wire. If growing various species of Microsorum or Anubias they use mesh to shade them, but also use fine mist sprayers to prevent the leaves drying out and keep the humidity high and constant.

Low cost attraction
The low cost of these plants is a huge attraction, particularly to the new hobbyist whose funds can be modest. The price of more technically produced plants can sometimes be harder to justify.

However, your aquarium is not Thailand or Singapore and although your plants are not explorers they will know that your aquarium is not like home...

The natural conditions in which the plants have been produced are difficult to emulate in the home aquarium — but more specifically there’s the issue of lighting.

Natural, intense sunlight is very different to T8, T5 or even metal halides. A plant will often go into shock once it reaches your aquarium and may take some time to recover. This is why you might find a plant dying when you expect quite the contrary.

There are other contributory factors, but it’s worth thinking about what environment your plants have come from when planning your next order. 

The future…
The other method of growing plants is far less like arable farming and more like something in a science fiction film. We are talking hydroponics. From the Greek word hydro, meaning water, and ponos, meaning labour, this is the future of plant production.

I have visited Tropica of Denmark, the product leader of hydroponic-produced aquatic plants in Europe, and the first thing to grab your attention is the appearance of the growths there.

They are nearly always set in pots, grown in rock wool and the majority of the species are grown above water — apart from a few of the obvious plants like Vallisneria, Aponogeton and Cabomba.

The way Tropica grow plants is very much state of the art. Many plant species start life in a laboratory as tissue cultures grown in a solution called agar jelly. This is a gelatinous solution that holds essential nutrients and sugars to aid plant growth, giving the plants the best possible start in life.

The great benefit is that you can now buy your plants straight from the laboratory.

Bug-free guarantee
Tropica have just launched into the UK a line called 1-2-Grow. These are small pots of plants grown only in agar jelly and guaranteed parasite free. People who hate snails will love these.

Once they have grown sufficiently in the jelly the plants are moved into greenhouses. The rest of their time they are grown in rock wool cubes.

There they are taken care of by dedicated nursery growers and sophisticated computer systems controlling humidity, temperature, watering and fertilisation to encourage optimum growth.

The plants are watered in an ebb and flood system, whereby huge pumps pour nutrient-rich water onto large trays of them twice a day. No water is wasted.

When the water runs back into a collection chamber, the computers calculate how much nutrient has been used by the plants and automatically adds that amount back into the central water system.

This techno-dedication gives you the strongest, healthiest plants available. There’s obviously a price to pay for such technology, but that price helps produce the best plants we can buy.

The most obvious advantage in buying hydroponically-produced plants is that they have never been exposed to any other tank/pond water. They have been established under artificial light and grown to give maximum yield. This means that your purchases will settle in far quicker.

Thanks to such a great start each plant, using its abundant food reserves, soon roots down into your substrate and starts growing with vigour.

There may be changes to each plant’s appearance when introduced to your aquarium. If they have been grown emersed or hydroponically the stems will get thinner as they no longer need to support their weight. Leaves will often look more delicate, sometimes changing shape, and often colours will also change.

Some, like Cryptocoryne and Echinodorus can lose the odd leaf when changing to deal with the underwater environment. These should be removed as soon as any yellowing or browning leaves are spotted. Note new, often brighter green leaves coming through the centre of the plant’s rosette.

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