A Native Rift Lake Plant for African Cichlid Tanks

Updated: Jul 8, 2019

It's rather easy to become obsessed with the stunningly beautiful and diverse cichlids of the African Great Rift Lakes. Intelligent, hardy and full of personality, they are often regarded more as pets than as merely "ornamental" fishes. For these reasons and more, they have held to (if not increased) their popularity even while the planted aquarium sector of the hobby has surged in recent years. African cichlids are, in fact, so beloved that many aquarists remain devoted to them despite the undeniably paltry selection Rift Lake aquarium biotope flora.



Arguably, many African cichlid hobbyists actually like the way in which their fish "pop" over the stark, rocky backdrop of a traditional Rift Lake aquascape. That being said, freshwater aquarists--African cichlid enthusiasts included--almost universally appreciate some "greenery" in their displays. This aesthetic ideal really could stem from some deeply innate and very naturally human attraction to plants. Driven by this need, many of these aquarists have attempted (with varying, though generally low, levels of success) to establish live plants in their systems. Some even resort to plastic plants.


To date, the most highly recommended plant species for these systems (Anubias, Microsorum, etc.) not only are non-native to the African Rift Lakes but are wholly unsuited to the alkaline condition of their waters. This presents two problems. The first of these is purely biological; non-native flora, despite promises made by those who sell them, almost surely wither away and die under the high-pH conditions. Another, admittedly pedantic, issue comes from the fact that non-natives compromise the authenticity of the Rift Lake biotope.


So, is there an attractive aquatic plant species that can grow well in African cichlid aquaria and tolerates the fishes' incessant excavating? And if so, is it native to the Rift Lake region? In short, yes and yes.


Stuckenia pectinata (formerly known as Potamogeton pectinatus) occurs across the globe. One big reason for this is its fast growth and extreme adaptability. Though it prefers alkaline water and bright illumination, it thrives under a very wide set of conditions. It even tolerates brackish environments and can be found in bays and estuaries.


Like its relatives among the Potamogetonaceae, it produces a thick, drought-resistant tuber. Its stems are highly branched with thin, nearly needle-like leaves. Depending upon light conditions, it can be pale green to dark green in color. It grows entirely submerged with the exception of its flower. Though it can reach heights of a meter, it generally grows in short, dense, grassy patches. It is known to produce copious of amounts of distasteful polyphenols that effectively discourage grazing by herbivorous fishes.


S. pectinatais widely distributed across tropical Africa, including Uganda (Lake Bunyonyi and Lake Albert), Kenya (Lake Turkana and Lake Naivasha), Tanzania (Gaitokitoke Springs and Lake Tanganyika) and the Republic of Malawi (Lake Malawi). It is additionally found in Madagascar and the Mascarenes Islands. Highly polymorphic, a robust variety from the Rift Lakes (bearing 2–4 mm wide leaves) was once thought to be a separate species and was originally described as Potamogeton livingstonei.




It is a complete mystery why this plant has taken so long to receive notice by aquarium hobbyists. Given its rapid growth/propagation, general hardiness and exotic appearance, S. pectinata should already be a staple in the trade. Naturally occurring in farflung waters from Central America to New Zealand to Great Britain, it is appropriate in many varied biotope systems. But it certainly may be of special interest to African cichlid keepers, who have grown so accustomed to meager plant options.


Hydrospace LLC is proud and excited to release Refugium Grass™, a starter pack containing five healthy, vibrant specimens of Stuckenia pectinata. Cultured in hard, basic water (pH 8.3), Refugium Grass™ is offered with a big nod to keepers of African Great Rift Lake biotopes of all kinds! This truly unique product is additionally included as a key component of the Refugium Helper™ package.