Java Fern aquarium plant

Java Fern Care: Guide to Species, Planting, and Propagation

The Java Fern is a classic, popular, and low maintenance aquarium plant.  It is an appealing choice for a number of reasons, including beautiful presentation, simple upkeep, and easy reproduction. It is one of the easiest aquatic plants to grow for beginners.

Below, we’re going to discuss everything you need to know about Java Fern. We’ll review their plant varieties, ideal tank, habitat, and best fertilizers so that you can safely include these beautiful plants in your aquarium. Both your eyes and your fish will thank you!

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Java Fern Overview

Java Fern is scientifically known as Microsorum Pteropus. It is native to Southeast Asia and typically grows in the freshwater rivers and streams in Thailand, Malaysia, India, and China. 

It has two main methods of grow – full submersion and partial submersion. However, the roots need to stay submerged in water in order to survive.


Java Fern Appearance

Structurally, there are three main parts on the plant:

  1. Leaves – These vary considerably in size from ¼ inch to 12 inches long. They’re hardy with a leather-like consistency.
  2. Rhizome – These are similar to stems but people often confuse them for the roots. You can think of rhizome as subterranean plant stems. Leaves grow out of the top and roots come out of the bottom so they’re very important in the plant structure. They are responsible for absorbing water and nutrients, and therefore critical in the planting process. 
  3. Roots – Roots come off of the Rhizome. The responsibility of the roots is to serve as an anchor for the plant. Ideal anchors for Java Fern include logs or rocks. Java Ferns don’t root in sand or soil; they attach to larger items like wood.
Java Fern growing on bogwood

Java Fern is a traditional green aquarium plant. The color can range from medium to dark green with the darker greens associated with high light tanks. The plants can get big, with heights of about 14 inches and 6-8 inches in width. 

Java Fern is highly adaptable for a variety of tanks, ranging from low light to high light tanks, large community tanks to show tanks.


Java Fern Varieties

Below is a breakdown of popular aquarium varieties. Many more versions exist but these are what you will most commonly aquarium when shopping for plants:

1. Microsorum Pteropus, “Narrow Leaf

As you might be able to guess, Narrow leaf Java fern has thin, narrow leaves.

2. Microsorum Pteropus, “Needle Leaf”

Even more pronounced than Narrow Leaf, Needle Leaf has even thinner leaves. Most beginner aquarists are shocked the first time that they see Needle Leaf Java Fern as it is not easy to identify as a Java Fern because of how much it visually differs. Needle Leaf is less common than the other varieties.

3. Microsorum Pteropus, “Trident”

Named after the Greek god of the sea, Poseidin, the Trident Java Fern has leaves that are forked with several extensions coming off the main leaf. This is thought to resemble the Trident carried by Poseidin. 

4. Microsorum Pteropus, “Windeløv”

Windeløv leaves resemble a regular Java fern until it gets to the ends, which separates into finely branched leaf tips.


Java Fern Care

Overall, the Java Fern is a hardy, easy-to-care-for aquarium plant. It doesn’t require high light or special nutrients, which makes it an excellent beginner’s plant. It is also slow-growing which means that it will slowly expand in your tank, which is encouraging that you’re providing the right conditions, without completely overwhelming your tank quickly.


Java Fern Habitat

Much like fish or aquatic critters, aquarium plants thrive when their aquarium settings closely mimic their natural surroundings. In its natural environment, Java Fern grows alongside streams and is often found near moving water, which translates to it favoring some moving water within your aquarium. 

Typically, your filter set-up will provide enough movement and oxygen. Additionally, Java Ferns don’t need C02 set-ups in order to thrive which simplifies the planted tank set-up. Java Fern also doesn’t draw nutrients from the substrate so your choices of substrate (or lack thereof) are endless.

1. Tank

For tank size, the absolute minimum tank size is 10 gallons. While Java Ferns grow slowly, their potential size long-term is large, which can lead to crowding issues in smaller tanks.

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2. Lighting

Most lighting set-ups will support the Java Fern. However, the best set-up would be subdued fluorescent or incandescent bulbs. It is a low-light plant and can survive with light levels that quickly equal a death sentence for other aquarium plants.

Ideally, Java Fern requires about 2 watts of light for each gallon in your tank, using 5000-7000K bulbs. Therefore, if you have a 50 gallon tank, you’d need at least 100 watts of light.

3. Fertilizer

Fertilizer can generally be skipped with Java Ferns. They truly are simple aquarium plants.

However, if you’re interested in speeding up the growth, adding in a liquid fertilizer like Seachem Flourish or API Leaf Zone will do the trick. While the Java Fern won’t grow at the same rate as your other plants, you will definitely start to see a quick increase in the growth pace.

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4. Water Conditions

Java Ferns will tolerate both cold water and tropical tanks, with a preferred temperature range between 68-82oF. The recommended pH is 6.0 – 7.0 with a hardness of 3 – 8dGH.

  • Recommended Temperature Range: 68-82oF
  • Recommended pH: 6.0 – 7.0
  • Recommended Hardness: 3 – 8dGH

How to Plant Java Ferns

Java Ferns are incredibly flexible plants and can basically be added to your tank in almost any location. They’re not dependent on light or substrate which means that you, as the aquarium owner, can get really creative!

In order to plant them, you need to weigh them down or tie them to the location where you want them to stay. Otherwise, it will just float around your tank and end up somewhere less ideal than your chosen location. 

Most aquarists tie it to a rock or piece of wood to get it planted, using fishing line or a string. The rhizome, or subterranean stem, will then send out roots that attach the plant to the object. This process usually takes a few weeks. Once the roots are intact, you can safely remove the fishing line or string and the plant should stay put. If not, repeat the previous step for an additional few weeks.

Try to avoid burying the rhizome in your substrate, as that can cause it to rot. If you put the rhizome next to some gravel, it will send the roots out and they will encircle the gravel. As long as they hold on to enough gravel, this gravel ball can function as a weight that allows you to move the Java Fern around the tank. This is a good trick if you don’t have any other potential anchors in your tank.


Java Fern Maintenance

No surprise here – Java Ferns are easy on the maintenance front. Leaves will occasionally die over time. When that occurs, pinch it off as close to the rhizome as possible and remove the dead leaf. Plant maintenance complete!

Besides that, don’t expect your Java Fern to immediately start growing. It may take some time to adjust to your tank conditions and establish its rhizomes. Once both of these changes occur though, it will start growing.

Java Fern in planted tank

Your plant will need some manicuring to achieve the planted tank look you’re seeking. Prior to planting, you need to consider if you want to keep your plant small or let it grow big and bushy. If you want to keep your plant on the smaller side, you will need to remove the small new plantlets that develop on the leaves. If you’re going for a bushier, less-manicured style, just let the plant keep growing. Leave the new plantlets to grow to achieve a bushier effect.

Expect to prune about once a year. Cut the leaves as close as you can to the rhizome so the plant understands the leaf is gone and it can redirect the energy to the remaining leaves.


Potential Issues

Java Fern should not be planted in substrate, as it will rot the rhizome and eventually kill the plant. 

Java Fern melt is another known issue. Multiple leaves can start to turn yellow or brown, get mushy and die. This is very common when added to a new tank so it is advised to trim any browning leaves down the rhizome. As the plant becomes acclimated, it will begin to start putting out new leaves.

In established tanks with established plants, this issue can happen for a few reasons. Common reasons are the plants don’t have enough nutrients (start using fertilizer), there is too much light (reduce the light or move the plant to a shadier part of the tank), or if there is too much blue-green algae in your tank (add some algae eaters to help). 

Sometimes, new Java Fern owners will see rows of dark spots on the underside of leaves. This is not disease. Actually, it is quite the opposite! It means the adult plant is about to put off plantlets with each spot becoming a baby plant.


How To Purchase A Healthy Plant

Avoid plants with browned leaves. You want the leaves to be bright to dark green.

Check out the rhizome too. You’re looking for a dark green rhizome without browning.

Java fern is typically sold as a cutting from a larger plant. You might only get a few leaves attached to a rhizome. While it might look kind of spindly, this is completely normal and the plant will soon put off new leaves as the plant matures.


Java Fern Propagation

Like most things Java Fern, plant propagation, or the growing of new plants, is a pretty simple process.

When plantlets (baby plants) start to form, wait until they have formed several leaves and trailing roots. You can then remove them from the parent and treat them like new Java Ferns in your tank. Tie them to a piece of driftwood or rock and start the process over again. Because they’re already acclimated to the tank conditions, they will grow faster than purchasing a new Java Fern.

For an alternative method, you can snip off a piece of rhizome with a few leaves attached. Each piece will become a new plant. Then, repeat the process over again by tying them down in the tank.

Soon, you will have more Java Fern than you know what to do with!


Tank Mates and Compatibility

The theme of this care guide is “Java Ferns are easy to care for!” This section of the guide is no different. 

Java Ferns are compatible with most aquarium fish as apparently, Java Ferns are not too tasty. Further, they have a tough, leathery leaf structure which makes them difficult to consume. Even most plecos will leave them alone.

Beautiful planted and painted aquarium using aquarium safe paint

A word of caution when the Java Ferns are young, as larger, more aggressive fish can knock them over and damage them. It is best practice to attach them to something heavier like a rock or piece of driftwood.


Java Fern FAQs

Does Java fern need to be planted?

No, Java Ferns do not need to be planted in substrate. Planting the rhizome in substrate will likely cause it to rot. The rhizome will send out leaves and roots to attach to whatever is near it. Therefore, you can tie your Java Fern to driftwood or rocks and it will eventually attach its roots to the object, which will keep it from floating off.

Is Java fern good for my aquarium?

Yes, Java Fern is good for aquariums and aquarists alike. It is slow-growing and easy to grow and reproduce, which makes it very popular. Additionally, Java Fern tolerates most lighting conditions and many water conditions. It will add natural beauty to your tank and provide a nice refuge for your fish and aquatic critters to hide.

Is Java fern fast-growing?

No, Java Fern is a slow-growing aquarium plant compared to many other species. This is a benefit of the plant, as it won’t quickly overtake your tank. In high light and CO2 situations, it grows fast. creating about a leaf a week, or slightly less. In low light and CO2 situations, it only creates about one leaf a month.

How many hours of light does Java fern?

Make sure that your Fern gets plenty of light, but not for more than 10 hours a day. It doesn’t need super strong lights. Ideally, it needs about 1.5 to 2 watts of light for each gallon in your tank, using 5000-7000K bulbs.

Is Java fern low light?

In terms of aquarium plants, yes, the Java Fern is low light. It needs about 1.5 to 2 watts per gallon in your tank.

How long does Java Fern take to attach?

Because Java Ferns are slow growing, they can take a while to securely attach in your tank, especially in a low light and CO2 tank. In those situations, it could take 3-6 months for the plant to be fully and securely attached.

How do I know if my Java fern is healthy?

The leaves will be vibrant green, the plant will be growing, and eventually, will start propagating new plants. If the plant has brown, mushy leaves, while failing to grow and create new plantlets, your Java Fern is likely unhealthy. In these situations, you will want to evaluate your lighting, CO2, and fertilizer requirements. Additionally, you should pinch off any dead leaves near the rhizome in order to help the plant reroute energy to the healthy leaves. 

Can Java fern get too much light?

Yes, Java Ferns can get too much light. When receiving too much light, they are susceptible to leaf scorching and overabundant algae growth. Both of these issues can harm the long term health of the plant.

Does Java fern reduce nitrates?

The main way to reduce nitrates is water changes. However, plants such as Java Ferns, can help reduce nitrates. Plants reduce nitrates by nutrient uptake. Fast growing plants with high light requirements that are densely planted will actually add to nitrates. However, slow-growing, low-light plants like Java Fern can help reduce nitrates slightly. A word of caution though – plants are not a replacement for water changes.

What is the preferred temperature for Java Fern?

Java Ferns are pretty flexible with their temperature ranges, making them an ideal aquarium plant for a lot of tanks. They prefer a temperature range between 68-82oF.

Is Java Fern right for your aquarium? 

Now that you’ve learned just about all there is to know when it comes to caring for Java Fern, you should be able to decide for yourself if they’re a good fit for your aquarium.

They’re an excellent entry-level aquarium plant as they’re low-light, low-fertilizer, and low-CO2 need. They also grow slowly so they won’t immediately take over your tank if you have the ideal conditions. Most fish don’t like to nibble on Java Fern because of their leather-like texture and bad taste, which means they will stay pretty longer which is great for your tank aesthetics. 

With the right conditions, Java Fern will grow and reproduce itself, so if you’re prepared for an annual or semi-annual pruning, they’re almost the perfect addition to your planted freshwater tank. 

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