Java fern is a popular aquarium plant across the globe. It finds a place in most aquariums, from community tanks to large public aquariums.

Many may have seen, heard, or even used it. If you are new to the hobby and setting up your first aquarium, you are in the right place.

It is easy to plant, undemanding, and apt for any species of freshwater fish(es), making it the first choice of all fish owners.

This article covers everything you need to know about the java fern, its care, propagation, varieties, etc.

Java Fern Profile

Quick Facts Overview
Scientific Name Microsorum Pteropus
Popular Name Java Fern
Origin Southeast Asia
Size (Maximum Height) 12 to 14 inches
Aquarium Type Freshwater, Brackish Water

Origin and Habitat

Hailing from Southeast Asia, they probably derive their name from the Indonesian Island of Java. They thrive on the banks of rivers, streams, ponds, and lakes in areas with monsoons.

Java Ferns are partially submerged as they grow in the water, and their leaves grow above the water. They require less light and survive in water with fewer nutrients. They stand tall even in summers with reduced water levels, making them sturdy and tolerant to temperature changes.

Their presence in the aquarium trade dates back to the nineteenth century. Adaptability to long

transit routes in the aquarium trade (in a small bag with water without extra care) made them a popular choice.

Size and Growth Rate

Java ferns grow up to 12 to 14 inches tall at a slow growth rate of approximately 1 inch per month. That they can survive in waters with low nutrients does not mean they have no needs. They need an optimal environment to grow and propagate naturally.

Left on their own, they grow linearly, covering the surface horizontally wherever they find a holding space.

Physical Appearance

Java fern has slender, long, thick, green leaves with soft, pointy edges that lend a colorful, bushy look to the aquarium. It consists of two main parts:

  1. Leaves – have a leathery texture with prominent veins and a symmetric pattern. Each leaf has the potential to reproduce by developing spores (black spots). The leaves taste bitter, so no fish(es) eat them. However, they love to hide, rest, and swim playfully around them.
  1. Rhizome- is a small dark brown/black root-like portion at the bottom, from which the leaves grow. It needs to be above the ground/substrate to latch onto a surface firmly for the plant to grow. If you plant it inside, it will rot and die.

Whilst it appears like a root, it acts like a stem with leaves growing above it and roots growing beneath it.

Java Fern Varieties

Most of these varieties (except one) need the same water parameters. All of them require the same care.

Windelov, Java Lace Fern, or Lace Java Fern

It is a rare, exotic variety in which every leaf forks out into 2-3 small twigs (small branches) from the tips, lending it a beautiful overall look and spread. It is named after Mr. Hogler Windelov, founder of a leading aquarium plant company, to acknowledge his contribution to identifying newer aquarium plants.

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Windelov, Java Lace Fern, or Lace Java Fern

Red Java Fern

Newer leaves of this rare variety are light pink to reddish-brown and turn green as they age. A unique mix of red and green leaves makes this variety desirable.

Philippine Java Fern

This rare variety hails from the brackish waters of Panay Island in the Philippines, explaining its name. Its leaves have a strikingly prominent (as if embossed) pattern that stands out. Besides, its water parameters vary slightly.

Philippine Java Fern

Narrow-Leaf Java Fern

Explaining its name, the leaves of this variant are narrower than the standard one.

Narrow-Leaf Java Fern
Undulata or Latifolia Java Fern

Undulata or Latifolia Java Fern

The leaves of this variant are light green and broader than the standard variant.

Needle-leaf Java Fern

It is a rare, high-demand variant with leaves that are narrower than the narrow-leaf variant, giving it a taller look. It is apt for aquascaping.

Needle-leaf Java Fern
Trident Jave Fern

Trident Jave Fern

Its narrow leaves curl or bend slightly at the tips. Each leaf tip ends with a tiny (dot-like) lobe. It is a rare, high-demand variant for aquascaping.

Availability and Price

Java ferns are saleable from a height of 3 inches onward. Vendors sell them ready to use/pre-attached (you have to place them in the aquarium at a suitable spot) or un-attached/loose (you will need to plant them in the aquarium).

It is available at local pet stores/online. Its price starts from $6 and varies depending on the size, availability, readiness to use, offers, and type.

How to Plant Java Fern in an Aquarium

Wear gloves. Remove any dead leaves. Sterilize the plant and other materials (listed in point B) using a 20% (non-chemical and unscented) bleach solution or a 3% hydrogen peroxide solution. Rinse everything thoroughly.

Keep the plant in a quarantine tank (QT) for 3-4 weeks, before adding it to the aquarium with fish(es).

Always keep the rhizome above the substrate, such that it is visible. If you do not like the view of roots, cover them behind a small rock or some decor.

Many use super glue to fix the plant firmly in the aquarium. Use this sparingly, as you cannot change its position after gluing it.

Pre-attached Plant

If the plant is ready to use (pre-planted/attached), add the sterilized plant to the main aquarium after quarantining it.

Unattached Plant

If the plant is unattached, you will need a rough supporting surface (like driftwood or rock) to hold it. A tying material (like a rubber band, thread (normal/dissolving), fishing wire, etc.)

Tie the rhizome(s) to the supporting surface with the thread. Place the plant in a QT, and leave it. Instead of tying, you can also stick them using a fish-safe super glue. Allow the super glue to dry before adding the plant to the QT.

The roots will grow and wrap themselves firmly around the driftwood/rock. After 3-4 weeks, the plant will be ready to join your fish(es).  You can remove the visible tying material or keep it.

Floating

Java fern is also one of the best floating plants. Leave the plant floating in the QT and aquarium. Rhizome(s) will find surfaces to latch onto.

While transferring, ensure you move it with the pieces supporting the rhizomes. If you break the supporting grip, you can still float the plant in the community tank. As long as it has a rhizome, it will grow.

Java Fern Care

Care Overview
Care Level Easy
Tank Level(s) Midground, Background, Floating
Breeding Easy. Through Spores and Rhizomes

As discussed earlier, it is a slow-growing plant requiring minimum maintenance. After planting it, you need to remove dead leaves, if any. By default, the plant will grow horizontally in the available space.

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If you have large or aggressive fish(es) in the aquarium, attach the plant to a big rock or large driftwood piece to avoid accidental damage. It needs special care regarding uprooting until the roots anchor firmly.

Since we are using a QT without fish(es) for 3-4 weeks, this is not a concern. However, use your discretion anyways and provide extra support to the plant till it holds firmly.

The plant requires subtle light and does not need carbon-dioxide injections. Do not keep the aquarium exposed to direct sunlight.

It does not need trimming unless you wish to achieve a specific spread or shape.

Use a liquid fertilizer if the plant does not grow an inch within a month (which is rare). Choose a mild fertilizer that is safe for your fish(es). Do not use copper-based fertilizers if you have scaleless fish/fish with small scales, loaches, eels, or shrimp.

Avoid using excessive fertilizer. It is better to be on the lesser side, than overdose any chemical in the water.

Red Flags or Possible Issues

It is a sturdy plant requiring minimum maintenance. However, you may face some common issues listed below with possible remedies.

Description Possible Remedy
Plant turning black It is NOT an issue, but a sign of healthy growth. Its leaves have black veins. As the plant matures, it develops black spots known as spores, which are instrumental in reproduction.
Transparent Leaves Exposure to bright light makes the leaves transparent. Adjust the aquarium light to fix the issue. Keep it dim with a day-night cycle.
Algae on leaves Since the plant is slow growing, sometimes, you may notice algae on the leaves. Scrap visible algae immediately using an algae scrapper/manually.   Excessive algae growth is unhealthy. Over-exposure to light, poor aquarium management, or excessive nutrients in the water are possible culprits.   Identify and fix the issue. Improve aquarium maintenance.   Remove the affected leaves and sterilize the plant.   Adding algae-eating fish(es) also helps, if the issue persists.
Java Fern melt. Brown leaves Improper lighting, excessive algae, or both – are possible causes.   Follow the above remedies.   Use fertilizer to expedite plant growth (refer to section 3.0).
Plant is growing or the leaves turning yellow or brown with no algae issue If the rhizome is above the substrate, and the plant still does not grow, it could be due to a lack of nutrients in the aquarium. Adding fertilizer should fix the issue.   Besides, if the leaves turn yellow or brown (without an algae issue), the plant might be dying. It will reproduce multiple plantlets before dying. So your aquarium will still have the new plantlets (refer to section 5.0).   Ensure all other requirements (water quality, light, aquarium size, etc.) are in place.

How to Propagate Java Fern

Natural Reproduction

Its natural reproduction method is known as apomixis. In this process, new, smaller leaves grow on the adult plant’s leaves. They resemble adult leaves except for their size.

This plant reproduces abundantly and ongoingly on its own. We need to be patient till the plant matures.

Java fern black spots

Mature leaves develop black spots underneath. These dots are known as spores. Small brown rhizomes sprout and hang from each dot.

Java fern Small brown rhizomes sprout
Java fern brown rhizomes sprout

These roots develop small java fern leaves known as plantlets, which cling to the matured leaves. The rhizomes of the hanging plantlets reach the ground and anchor themselves to any surface to develop a new plant. The process eventually gives a green, bushy look to the aquarium over time.

Natural Reproduction Java Fern

Manual Intervention

Using Older Rhizomes

The original rhizome becomes broad and dense as the plant grows. In this method, the grown rhizome is cut into two or more parts using scissors. Segregated bunches of leaves having a rhizome each are planted on driftwood/rocks (refer to section 2.2).

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Hybrid (Using New Rhizomes or Plantlets)

I call this method hybrid, as it involves both natural propagation and manual intervention. Once the brown rhizomes sprout on mature leaves, they are cut with scissors and planted on a surface to grow.

Alternatively, the hanging plantlets are segregated manually with their rhizomes and planted on a surface.

Reproducing on Survival Mode

A dying java fern plant has an inherent, natural trigger to propagate multiple plantlets (up to 20 plantlets per leaf), to ensure it leaves its legacy.

Tank and Water Parameters

Tank Requirements Overview
Minimum Tank Size 10 Gallons or more
Water Temperature 60.0 to 83.0 degrees F/15.6 to 28.3 degrees C
PH Level 6.0 to 7.5
Water Hardness 2 to 15 dKH
Tank and Water Parameters for Java Fern

Size

A 10-gallon aquarium is enough only if you have a single plant.

Also, consider the space requirements of other aquarium plants (if any), tank d, and your fish(es). Remove excess java fern growth from the aquarium periodically if need be. You can gift/sell it, use it in another tank for aquascaping, or make a Paludarium (land water aquarium).

A smaller aquarium will curtail plant growth. Select accordingly. 

Water Parameters

It can thrive in soft, medium, and hard water. Besides, it can tolerate a wide range of water temperatures. The ideal water temperature is 70 to 75 degrees F. Use water parameters that suit the fish(es).

Lighting

Subdued lighting is best. Switch off the aquarium lights at night.

Substrate

It does not require any substrate to plant its roots.  A driftwood/rock in the decor will help in anchoring the plant. However, your pet fish will need an apt substrate.

Tankmates

Once the plant anchors itself, it will not uproot easily. It is apt for any freshwater/brackish water aquarium with small to large fish(es). As discussed earlier, there is no threat of fishes eating its leaves, as they taste bitter.

If you have aggressive fish species, attach the plant to a large surface. Place extra rocks/decor around the plant creatively, for added support.

Bettas, Tetras, Cichlids, Shrimps, Oscar Fish, and Snails are some popular species that love this plant.

Placement

The primary goal of your aquarium should be to showcase the beauty of your pet fishes and provide a clear view of their activities.

The plant looks best at the center of the aquarium. Its lustrous green spread will add color. Besides, you will enjoy watching the fishes at play.

It can also be in the background to provide green coverage from behind. Decor can be in the front. Your aquatic beauties will still have the same access to the plant.

Many float this plant in the aquarium to subdue the lighting, especially for nocturnal fish species. The floating green leaves lend the same purposeful beauty to your aquarium and its dwellers.

Aquascaping

Aquascaping refers to creative gardening ideas in the aquarium. Aquatic plants and decor primarily create underwater aquascapes (just like we have landscapes). Adding fishes is optional.

For aquascaping java fern, you can add a brown, black, or white substrate of sand, gravel, or rounded stones. Try two different layers of substrates (say brown and white). Use a carpeting plant for further color contrast.

Use colorful marbles, stones with real/artificial rocks, driftwood, grass, foliage, etc. Place the plant in the center with other decors around it.

You can float a second plant. When the center plant grows tall, reduce the water level for a partially submerged look.

Be creative with materials /colors. There are various styles of aquascaping (like Dutch, Japanese, etc.) if you are keen to learn more.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Can Java Fern grow out of water?

Java fern has roots in the water, but the plant grows above the water level. It will grow in a closed aquarium with only 50% water and high moisture.

It will not grow only on land, as it is not a terrestrial plant deriving nutrients from underground roots.

Conclusion – Is it the best choice?

To summarize, java ferns are the best choice for freshwater aquariums for the following reasons:

  • It absorbs harmful carbon dioxide from the aquarium and releases oxygen, keeping it oxygenated.
  • It is easy to care for, making it a popular choice for all fish owners.
  • It can grow in a range of water temperatures and hardness.
  • Fishes will not eat your aquarium plant, which is a huge relief. After investing so much time, money, and effort, if the plant is not likely to be intact, it is heartbreaking.
  • You do not have to think before adding new fish species. A wide variety of popular freshwater fishes love this plant. Nor do you have to worry about water parameters for the plant vis-a-vis the aquarium dwellers in most cases.
  • It can stand tall in aquariums with fishes of any size and temperament.
  • Fishes love to play around its leaves and rest on them.
  • It provides much-needed shelter and hiding spaces to some timid fishes, often saving them from unwanted stress.
  • There are varieties you can choose from, and each requires minimal maintenance.
  • You can plant or float it.
  • It requires dim light, curbing unwanted algae growth in the aquarium.
  • It is available in pet stores.
  • Its thick, green leaves beautify your aquarium with their bushy spread.

Hopefully, you are clear about adding it to your aquarium. We wish you a happy fish parenting time!

About the Author

Victoria Lamb

Victoria is a freshwater aquatics specialist, fish keeper, and amphibian enthusiast. She has had more than 6 years of experience caring for aquariums and keeping several fish species, and her home boasts of 3 aquariums and a garden pond. Her goal is to educate fish owners on raising healthy and happy aquatic pets.

Career Highlights:

  • Has worked with several aquarium manufacturers as a consultant
  • Organized and hosted workshops on freshwater fish keeping at retail stores, educational facilities, and libraries
  • Released content for the amphibian community through her writings

Educational Highlights:

Bachelor of Science in Animal Behavior and Welfare

  • University of Lincoln, Lincoln, UK (2014-2018)

Writing Experience

Victoria has done ghostwriting for many aquarium and pet websites in the past. She has also worked for Canada's largest natural health magazine- ALIVE, with 300,000 monthly circulations as a freelancer. She had six published articles on animal behavior and welfare during her graduation for her thesis.

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