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Java Ferns

Are you looking to add a tasteful plant to your freshwater aquarium that’s very hardy, enjoys almost any freshwater habitat setup and can coexist with most aquatic life? Meet the Java fern, a popular choice of plant in aquarist circles.

The Java fern comes by way of Southeast Asia and earns its widespread popularity due to its highly amenable nature. In nature, it can be found growing around tree trunks, on rocks or wood and on roots found along rivers and waterfalls, growing either partially or fully submerged. It will grow in nearly any freshwater condition in an aquarium, offering gently wafting hiding and resting spots for your aquatic life. The Java fern’s simple care needs and resilience make it a good option for beginner aquarists and a reliable standby for more experienced aquarists. In other words, adding Java ferns to your aquascape has very few downsides.

Java fern appearance and types

While it may not be as flashy as some of its fellow live aquarium plants, the Java fern offers subtle beauty that can add style and elegance to any aquarium. These plants have long, wavy leaves and range in color from medium to dark green. Don’t panic if you notice black lines running through the leaves or black bumps on the leaves. Black lines are expected, and those bumps are baby Java ferns getting ready to sprout.

Over the years, enthusiasts have developed several unique Java fern varieties. The plant’s appearance can range from big, bushy leaves to thinner, more needle-like leaves. Some of the most popular Java fern types include:

  • Crested Java fern
  • Narrow leaf Java fern
  • Needle leaf Java fern
  • Trident Java fern
  • Windelov Java fern

Java fern care

Despite its reputation as nearly unkillable, the Java fern does require basic care to grow and flourish in your aquarium. The plant absorbs nutrients directly from the water through its leaves. Although beneficial, you don’t need to add fertilizer to the water if your aquarium culture provides enough natural nutrients to support your Java ferns. On the flip side, if the aquarium becomes too dirty, your Java ferns may be unable to obtain what they need to survive. Try adding a few algae eaters to your underwater community to remove the algae that will compete with your Java fern plants for nutrients.

Don’t be surprised if your Java fern plants don’t start growing right away. It may take them a few weeks to acclimatize to your aquarium. These are typically slow-growing plants, so you may need some patience while they find their footing. If your plants still aren’t growing after a few weeks, it may be time to add aquarium plant fertilizers and supplements to your habitat. Java ferns don’t root in substrate, so substrate fertilizers won’t help.

Once your plant is settled and growing, ongoing Java fern care and maintenance will depend on your personal preferences. Some aquarists like to let their Java ferns grow into an underwater forest, while others prefer to prune their plants to maintain a certain landscaped look. Because of how slowly Java ferns grow, you may only need to prune them once a year. Regardless of the look you are trying to achieve, always remove deceased leaves from your Java ferns.

Aquarium requirements

Java ferns can thrive in a wide variety of freshwater aquascape setups, but they’re most likely to reach their full potential in aquarium conditions that closely match their natural environment. These plants are recommended for aquariums that are at least 10 gallons so your Java ferns have room to grow. Keep your water temperature between 68 and 82 degrees Fahrenheit with a pH between 6.0 and 7.5. Keep lighting low to moderate. Java fern plants also do well without carbon dioxide as long as your filters and powerheads are functioning properly—though you may need to buy CO2 aquarium kits and accessories for your other plant and aquatic life.

Java ferns don’t need substrate, making them a great option for bare-bottom aquariums. Their ability to live without much light can also make them ideal for low-light habitats.

How to plant java ferns

Java ferns are so adaptable that you can drop a new plant in your aquarium, and it should start growing without much extra work. However, most aquarists prefer to use the plant to help create the specific look they want in their aquascape. When learning how to plant a Java fern, it’s important to know a little about the plant’s anatomy. It is made up of leaves and rhizomes, which are hair-like strings at the bottom of the plant that anchor it by attaching to different surfaces.

Java ferns may attach to a piece of driftwood, a rock or other aquarium décor. They tend to bind better to objects with a rougher surface—like a lava rock—and larger surfaces give the plant more room to spread.

While you can purchase an already anchored Java fern from most aquarium stores, you can also easily perform the planting yourself. Use nylon fishing line, thread, super glue gel, rubber bands or even zip ties to wrap the Java fern’s rhizomes around your chosen object, then place your plant in your aquarium. After a few weeks, your Java Fern’s rhizomes should be secured on their own. At this point, you may want to cut away the zip ties or rubber bands if they are visible in the habitat.

Common problems

One of the most common mistakes new aquarists make when introducing Java fern plants to their habitat is to assume they need to be planted in substrate. You may need to acquire aquarium plant substrates and tools for other plants in your aquarium, but it can be harmful to this particular plant. While the hardy Java fern can usually survive for several weeks in substrate, it will eventually begin turning brown. Browning is a red flag that your plant is sick and dying.

Small black and brown spots on your plant’s leaves are typically standard. New aquarists often mistake these spots for illness, but they simply mean the Java fern is preparing to propagate.

Java ferns can also suffer from a condition known as Java fern melt, characterized by large brown spots. Java fern melt causes plants to rot and become mushy. The most common causes of this condition are too much light, not enough nutrients or too much algae in the aquarium.

Java fern propagation

When it comes to expanding your aquarium’s Java fern population, one option is to simply step back and let the Java fern do its thing. On its own, a Java fern should develop black or brown spots on its leaves. A few weeks later, these spots will sprout into baby Java ferns. If you leave these babies alone, they’ll eventually drop from the leaves, find something to attach to and begin growing on their own.

On the other hand, if you want to have more control over the look of your aquarium, you can step in and steer the Java fern propagation. One way to do this is to cut half the rhizomes from one plant and anchor the cuttings on a different object in the habitat. Another avenue is to cut baby Java ferns from the leaves of their parent and place them wherever you want in the aquarium using your preferred anchoring method.

Habitat mates for java ferns

When it comes to putting together the right aquarium community, Java ferns can get along with many different aquatic plants and pets. Their leathery, bitter leaves make them unappetizing to most plant nibblers, and they can also stand up to large fish who might harm more delicate aquarium plants. Just keep in mind that a Java fern is most vulnerable when it first enters an aquascape and its rhizomes haven’t attached yet. If you already have large fish—like tiger Oscars, catfish or goldfish—in your aquarium, you may want to purchase a Java fern plant that is already anchored to an object.

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Java Fern "Red"

Java Fern "Narrow leaf"

FAQs about Java ferns 

It’s really up to you. Think about how you want your aquarium to look, and keep in mind that Java ferns can grow over 13 inches high and 8 inches wide. For this reason, many aquarists prefer to put their Java fern plants in the back of the habitat to create a stylish, green backdrop. Another popular option is to place Java ferns in the middle of the aquarium to make a little forest where fish can hide and play.

Not necessarily. If you don’t care where your Java ferns go, you can drop them into your aquarium, and the ferns’ rhizomes will keep growing until they find suitable anchors. However, many aquarists prefer to plant their Java ferns. This entails attaching a Java fern’s rhizomes to an object—such as a piece of driftwood or rock—yourself. Do not plant your Java ferns in substrate. Java fern plants can’t survive when their base or rhizome is buried in substrate and will eventually perish. 

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