Riparian planting literally takes your planted tank “out of the box.” Riparian zones are defined as areas at the edges of rivers,
and creating a riparian aquascape aims to
mimic these environments in the aquarium.
This usually means masking the rear or
back of the tank at the water’s edge with
emergent plants, creating the illusion of
a possible riverbank somewhere behind.
Having plants simply growing up and out
of an aquarium is also considered riparium
in terms of aquascaping.
Good riparium plants usually need their
roots kept moist or fully immersed with
some or all of their leaves above the water
surface. Some of these plants can adapt
to being permanently fully submerged or
emersed or to tolerate some periods of both
(as may occur in natural areas). Indeed,
many fully aquatic plants we commonly
keep are found in riparian areas, but
we fight their tendency to reach for the
sun and prune them to be the aquatic
shrubbery we desire. But by raising them
in planters or simply letting them grow up
and out, different foliage and growth habits
can be observed and growth can become
more robust. Best of all, gardening upward
adds a whole new dimension to a planted
aquarium to play with and enjoy.
There are tangible benefits in terms of
water chemistry and aquarium health that
come from keeping a riparian-style planted
aquarium. A key difference in riparium
aquariums is that plants with aerial leaves
have uninhibited access to the air, and thus
a much greater concentration of CO2 than is
available dissolved in the water. With strong
lighting, or in closer proximity to lighting,
the plants’ growth tends to be much greater
than for plants kept solely in water.
Greater demand is often put on nutrients
as a result, though this is generally a very
beneficial result. Indeed, happily adding
more fish stock or slightly relaxing water
change regimens (albeit while maintaining
regular water testing) usually assists with
this. If you prefer or need to limit livestock,
simply dosing extra macronutrients (with
nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium)
using a good liquid fertilizer or fertilizer
balls or pellets pressed among the root
systems will produce good results.
As for the aerial environmental
considerations for ripariums, be aware
of ambient air temperature and currents.
Cold temperatures or drafts can harm
delicate tropical foliage, causing browning,
withering, or stunted growth. Likewise,
extreme temperatures and consistent
strong exposure to direct sunlight can
cause leaf burn and algae beneath. Filtered
or indirect sun can be okay, however,
and even beneficial for some species.
Experiment in your own system.
It is also important to check any rampant
growth. Removing very large leaves and
shoots will stimulate the production of
branching and smaller, more compact
growth for tall growers. Trailing plants can
be trained to grow up or across surfaces,
or they can be trimmed and replanted to
Riparian Plants: Taking Your
Planted Tank to the Next Level
Lea Maddocks has been a longtime
underwater and aquarium enthusiast,
keeping aquaria and ponds for much of
her life, as well as scuba diving since
age 15. A biologist (BSc, Hons, MPhil),
she has a fascination with aquarium
science including fish, invert, plant and
reef husbandry, aquarium ecology, and
the art of aquascaping. She operates a
professional business that specializes in
aquarium and vivarium maintenance.
She is also an active member of the
Canberra District Aquarium Society, has
contributed advice to fish and aquatic
plant forums, and has written for the
Australian RSPCA on a variety of
subjects, including betta and goldfish care.